Parental Alienation - How to overcome the arguments


The child says different things to different people.
It is well documented that children say different things to different people - in general they say what they think adults want to hear - after all they are political animals trying to exist in a crisis :
"Children fit their responses to the expectations of adults, especially those adults who are in a position of power'' [DHSS report on child abuse issued by HMSO 1983]
Unfortunately :
"Each parent is likely to take what has been said at face value and to be reluctant to believe the other's claim that they have been told the opposite ..'' [Conciliation, Children & Divorce - Howard & Shepherd p 68]
Misunderstandings are not sufficient reason to deprive a child of access.
Child not wanting to see you ?
The weight of expert opinion now is that the most critical factor in the child's successful adjustment to divorce is his continued contact with both parents. [Susan Maidment, Family Law 1984]
Why then is it your child is being denied contact with both parents ?

If it has been claimed that the child does not wish to see you, ask:

How can a child appreciate the long or short term effects of not seeing one parent ?
The child has a right to be protected against the damage which will result from losing contact,
So you must must try to discover what is really being said - and why.
It may be that the child is identifying with the views of the parent with whom it lives. The child has already lost one parent so it is unlikely to want to do anything which would annoy the other parent one - after all, who would look him if she left ?

It may be that the child was very young at the time of the separation and has had no experience of staying access or even regular access, so has no concept of what it is. It may be that the child is a little hesitant about this step into the unknown, and this is to be expected, but this is not sufficient reason to deny this access which is so essential to continued well being.

How do we perceive what the child wants and what is in it's best interests ? These may be two different things. A child may not ant to go to school, but it is usually in their best interests. The child may say ``No'' to access when it means

``Yes'', or
``I don't know'', or
``I don't want to hurt mummy''.
The problem is that the child is not free to choose - after all they are trying to exist in a crisis. The child is very aware of the animosity between the parents; and may therefore think that going on access will annoy mother - but this is not sufficient reason to deny access.
In this context decisions about access become heavy, burdensome and agonising - decisions a child should not be expected to make.

It may be worth arguing that there is no evidence before the court that access would be anything other than beneficial to the children - but there is plenty of evidence in recent reports of the harm of not having access. These children deserve the opportunity to love and be loved by both parents.

A decision needs to be imposed from outside - this will not only relieve the children from the burden of making the decision, it will also remove any feeling of betrayal when they go on access. A court order gives the children the protection they need - they can go on access knowing that they are not betraying mother.

Suggest a trial of access, at a contact centre or with the help of the welfare officer, and that it be reviewed by both parties meeting with the welfare officer in 3 months. Remember always have a built-in review - it is quicker to get back into court that way if anything goes wrong.

David Cannon

Last updated - 12 April 1999

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Parental alienation syndrome is an evolving subject and not without controversy. For some, anyone who obstructs contact is intentionally denigrating the other parent with the intent of alienating the child, and this is seen as a symptom of depression and dependence. But for others the matter is not so clear.

Anita Vestal defines PAS as:

... a disturbance in which children are preoccupied with viewing one parent as all good and the other parent as all bad. The bad parent is hated and verbally marginalised, whereas the good parent is idealised and loved ...
[Mediation and Parental Alienation Syndrome: considerations for an intervention model; Family and Conciliation Courts Review, (1999) 37 (4) p 487-503]
Richard A Gardner (who originated the term) defines PAS as:


... a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent. When true parental abuse and/or neglect is present the child’s animosity may be justified, and so the parental alienation syndrome explanation for the child’s hostility is not applicable.
The Canadian Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access regarded alienation as a serious problem requiring immediate action:

One particularly alarming symptom of a high-conflict divorce is that a child may decide that he or she does not want to visit one parent or the other. Committee Members were profoundly concerned about such cases when they were described to us by witnesses, especially where children told the Committee that they wished to sever a relationship with a non-residential parent. In the view of Committee members, such a desire on the part of a child is indicative of a serious problem and calls for immediate intervention. A child who acts on such a wish, with the support of the other parent or the judicial system, may in the long term come to regret the choice he or she has made.
They accordingly made Recommendation 33:
This Committee recommends that professionals who meet with children experiencing parental separation recognize that a child's wish not to have contact with a parent could reveal a significant problem and should result in the immediate referral of the family for therapeutic intervention.
We are still evaluating the literature, but hope that what is on this site will be of use.

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Parental alienation syndrome:
The lost parents’ perspective

Despina Vassiliou
Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology
McGill University, Montreal
A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts in Educational Psychology

© 1998, Despina Vassiliou

Relationship with the PAS children

The importance of studying PAS is evident in its effects on the children and their relationship with their lost parents. Examining the frequency of visitation and the lost parents’ relationship with their children may provide insight as to the impact of PAS on the children and their relationships with their lost parents.

(a) Frequency of visitation/contact: The researcher probed the participants for information pertaining to the amount of contact between the participant and his or her child (or children). Contact was defined as any interaction between individuals whether by conventional mail, e-mail, telephone, or physical ("face to face") contact.

Results: All of the participants reported that the mother had primary custody of the children at the time of divorce or separation. Visitation for the fathers was approximately every second weekend, with the exception of one father who was allowed visitation five days a week for five hours per day. Since the finalization of the divorce or the implementation of the custody agreement, all of the alienated parents had their visitation drastically reduced, including the alienated mother who initially had primary custody. Upon asking her how often she sees her children, if at all, her response was "none." Most of the alienated parents had not seen their children via a court implemented visitation for up to four years. Those parents who continued to have visitation had less frequent visits than when they were first divorced or separated (e.g., instead of every second weekend, a father reported that his visitation had been reduced to once a month). For instance, one father described his reduction in visitation as follows: "...about three years ago...it [visitation] was once or twice a week, and since then....I can see him about once a month." Overall, the results suggest that a change in the frequency of visitation and custody arrangement occurs with these PAS families. The change of visitation and custody arrangement tends to be as follows: At the onset of the divorce, fathers received regular visitation schedules and the mothers (including the alienated mother in the present study) were given primary custody. After the legal proceedings and the onset of PAS there was a significant decrease in the frequency of the visitation schedule with all the alienated parents, including the alienated mother who had been given primary custody at the onset of the divorce. Although this result may be attributed to having primarily male participants in the study who tended to have visitation rather than custody, nonetheless, the frequency of the visitation was drastically reduced after the proceedings for all of the participants. Further, it remains uncertain as to the cause of the change in the visitation frequency. This change may be due to the legal proceedings or to PAS itself or a third unknown factor. If such a change were due to PAS however, it would be indicative of the success of the alienators in having the lost parents removed from the children’s lives.

(b) Current relationship with PAS children: Again, the researcher probed the participants for data pertaining to the type of physical, verbal, and emotional contact between the participant and the children.

Results: Three of the participants reported having little or no relationship with their alienated children. The alienated mother reported that although she had very little contact with her children she still felt "connected" with them. She continued to attempt to be present during important children’s events such as soccer, baseball games and graduations despite various obstacles (e.g., not being told of such events and being "scolded" by the alienator for going). The fathers who had little contact with their children reported that they attempted to maintain contact by writing letters and cards as well as sending various types of gifts (e.g., toys) to their children. Regardless of whether their children responded to their communication attempts, these fathers hoped that their children understood that by these gestures they were demonstrating their affections to their children. One father described his attempts as follows: "...I write every week. I try to send him [his son] something every week. It can be a postcard, it can be a toy... "

Only two alienated fathers reported having a close relationship with their alienated children. One of these fathers described his case as a mild form of PAS and attributed his closeness to his daughter to her young age and that he continued to maintain daily telephone contact with her. In his words:

I’ve always been very close with my daughter...very, very close...I don’t think they [the divorce/custody proceedings] had anything [to do with it], she was too young. She was only two years old.

The other lost parent reported a close relationship with his two younger children, while his relationship with his oldest daughter remained somewhat strained. This participant’s close relationship with his younger children may be attributed to a milder form of PAS with his younger children than with his daughter and to his relationship with his ex-spouse who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and with whom he is currently re-establishing some communication. Thus, the results confirm that most PAS children and their lost parents did indeed have a strained relationship. However, the severity of PAS was a weak indicator of the extent of such a strain.

Overall, the results pertaining to the issues of the lost parents’ relationships with their PAS children are as follows: First, the results suggest a decrease in the frequency of visitation for the lost parent which may or may not have been due to PAS. Specifically, participants reported that custody was routinely given to the mother at the onset of the divorce, regardless of who became the alienator and who became the lost parent with the onset of PAS. Further, all fathers had a consistent visitation schedule where all had visitation every two weeks with the exception of one father who visited every day. With the onset of alienation, the alienator received custody and the lost parents had their visitations drastically reduced either to absolutely no visitation or no contact, to visitation of approximately once a month. Of interest is that the only lost female parent who initially had primary custody of the children had absolutely no visitation schedule by the time of the interview. Second, as there was a reduction of other contacts with their children, the lost parents described a limited relationship with their children, often writing to them without reply. The only exceptions to these findings were two fathers who related that their ability to maintain a relatively stable relationship with their children was a function of the mild severity of the PAS in their cases. Therefore as expected, the findings mildly suggest indications that the less severe the PAS the better the chance of having a good relationship with their children.

Alienation and alienating techniques

As there is little research on this subject, a more detailed examination of alienation and associated alienating techniques is necessary in gaining a better understanding of its impact.

(a) Alienators’ attitude and behaviours: Data pertained to all references to the alienators’ behaviours and actions that resulted in any negative consequences for the participant or the alienated child or children. Some of the data gathered for this issue was either probed by the researcher or was spontaneously reported by the participants throughout the interview,

Results: The results suggest that the alienators denigrated the lost parents by implying that the lost parents were not good people. For instance, one father accidentally overheard the alienator inform the children that she had hired an attorney to prevent them from having to visit with their father. The alienator did not allow the child to continue a healthy relationship with the lost parent. Another parent reported that whenever his child went back to the alienator’s home after a visit with him, the child would be questioned or "debriefed" about everything that happened there. A way the alienators exercised their power, as described by a father, included attempts offering the children alternate choices (e.g. shopping) to visiting with the father. The results suggest that all of the participants perceived a general "sabotage" of their relationships with their children by the alienators. The lost parents reported that they perceived their relationship with their children as being "eroded" often by not being informed of a child’s activities (e.g., soccer game schedule) that the lost parent may have wished to attend. Whether the alienator used mild "alienating techniques"- for instance whenever the lost parent called, the alienator would call the children to the telephone by saying in an "angry voice" "Its your father!" - or more drastic means by making accusations of physical and sexual abuse, the effect was that all the lost parents perceived that they were denied or deterred access to their children.

(b) Other’s contributions: Data gathered for this group pertained to all references to any individual, with the exception of the ex-spouse, who engaged in any alienating techniques (i.e., that were perceived by the participants as attempts at alienating the lost parent from the PAS child). Some of the responses were due to the researcher’s questioning but the primary source for the data was due to the participants’ spontaneous descriptions of the alienating circumstances involving others.

Results: In five of the six cases the children of the PAS families were described as "spies" for the alienator. These children reported back to the alienator anything that the lost parent said that the child did not like. This reporting would often result in arguments between the alienator and the lost parent. The female participant in the study reported that her children would copy all of her personal papers and bills for their father. Further, her children would report to him whenever she had a date. The results also indicate that gifts given to the children by the lost parent would often "disappear" or be broken by the children. In the two cases where there was more than one PAS child, the results indicated that the children were "turned against each other" where in one case they would spy on each other and in the other case the oldest child would engage in alienating the younger children (e.g., enticing the younger children to abandon their visit with their father in order to go to "Sea World" with her and her mother). In one of the cases the maternal grandparents continued the alienation when the alienator (the mother) had discontinued all contact with the father and the grandparents were placed in the position of monitoring the child’s visits with his father. In another case the lost parent’s ex-brothers-in-law and ex-mother-in-law also contributed to the alienation by denigrating the father in front of the children (e.g., saying "I am really sorry you have a father like that"). These results suggest that the children acted as the secondary alienator (i.e., the second alienator after the parent) and they would do so primarily by being spies for the alienating parent and by continually rejecting the lost parent via various means (e.g., breaking toys). Grandparents and other extended family members also appeared to play an important role by contributing to the alienation as secondary alienators, provided that they were close to the alienator. The findings suggest that the closer the alienator’s family members, the greater their tendency to alienate as well. These findings raise the question as to why close family members contribute to the alienation. For instance, are some of the alienating parent’s family characteristics indicative of their engagement in alienation or is it something about the alienation itself that engages other family members to contribute to the alienation or is it simply that these family members take sides? Researchers have yet to address this issue and future research will be important in answering this question.

(c) Cause of PAS: Data gathered here pertained to any causes or factors that the participants perceived to be linked to the development or occurrence of the alienation. Some of the data collected on this issue resulted from direct probing by the researcher, and some resulted from the participants descriptions of their circumstances.

Results: All of the participants believed that the motive behind the alienation was triggered by hate, anger, or a sense of seeking revenge towards them by the alienator or some combination of these. One father reported his belief that the cause of the alienation was "Hate...Hate towards me" and another participant perceived: "She hates my guts and she says it...And she’s trying to get back at me as well." Another motive suggested in the findings was that the participants perceived the alienation as a means by which the alienators could succeed in severing the participants’ relationships with their children. One participant noted that the alienator may have made accusations of abuse as a means of explaining the reason behind the divorce. He described his belief as follows: "This gives her an excuse for leaving a bad guy and why the marriage broke up, and therefore it’s not her fault." The findings suggest that the participants perceived the underlying cause of the alienation as the hatred toward the lost parents, anger, or revenge, or some combination of these.

(d) Control/power: All data gathered pertained to references to situations where the participant perceived that an individual’s actions or behaviours led to another individual’s behavioural change or constraint. Moreover, the data were spontaneously generated by the participants rather than elicited by the researcher.

Results: The results suggest that the participants had lost some power over their relationship with their PAS children. The alienators were often described by the participants as using the child or other means to attempt to produce a desired outcome in the lost parent or the child. An example of an alienator using the child is as follows: an alienator locked her child in a dark closet, to be found "yelling and screaming" by the lost parent, in order to make the lost parent give her some papers.

Feelings of powerlessness were also apparent in the findings as the participants reported feeling constrained as to the way in which they had to behave in the presence of their children. They reported a need to control their behaviour while in the presence of their children for fear of losing their visitation privileges or experiencing other legal consequences when the child reported to the alienator what the lost parent had done. As one father described his feelings:

So I think she [his daughter] has a lot more power than I do, you know. She has the power to just terminate the relationship at any time. I mean, if at any time she would say ‘Well Dad, I don't feel like seeing you any more.’ Well, her mother's ...she says, you know, ‘whatever your daughter wants, you know...that's the law type of thing’.
There is a sense of loss of parental role in the life of their children that has been attributed to the alienation. The lost parents cannot exert any of his or her parental responsibilities over their children. For instance, one lost parent reported how he could not discipline his child (e.g., send the child to her room) when the child behaved inappropriately, or she might end the visit the alienator would become angry at him for having disciplined his daughter as he once would normally have done.

Participants who did not have any contact with their children also reported a sense of being controlled or constrained in their behaviour. For instance, one father believed that he had to monitor the frequency with which he sent cards or packages to his child for fear of being charged with "harassment" if he did so too frequently. Further, two of the participants reported a sense of the children being controlled by the alienator. These children had to behave in a certain manner while with the alienated parent to avoid negative consequences by the alienator. For instance, one participant reported that an unscheduled visit to his child (in order to bring her a gift) resulted in the alienator yelling at the child for speaking to him. There was a sense of powerless reported by all the participants forcing them to behave in a certain manner to avoid legal or other consequences. As one father reported, once divorce occurs then "the courts really have the say over what happens to the kids, not you" [the parent]. These findings suggest that the lost parents perceived themselves as powerless with their children and to have lost their traditional parental roles whether or not they had visitation with their children.

Overall, the findings confirmed that the alienators used denigrating techniques (e.g., implying that the lost parents were not good people) and provided ultimata to children and spouses to further the alienation that was motivated by hate, anger, revenge or some combination of these three. Others were enlisted to contribute to the alienation. Children, in particular, were seen as spies to relay information to the alienator and, as such, may be considered secondary alienators. Second, extended family members such as in-laws who shared close relationships with the alienators contributed to the alienation as well. Moreover, the lost parents felt powerless as a result of the alienating situation. The children in particular were perceived as controlling the lost parents, they could determine when, if at all, they would see the lost parent, under what circumstances and in particular what the lost parent would do with the child. The lost parent had to be careful not to anger the child for fear of never seeing their child again and to be careful even sending them letters or toys. This loss of parental role was reported by the participants whether or not they had visitation with their children.