Archive for the ‘Professionals’ Category


Identifying Cases of Parent Alienation Syndrome–Part II by Leona Kopetski, MSSW


“The accommodating characteristic of the alienated parent sometimes includes a willingness to provide some justification for the alienating parent’s accusations.”

Editors’ Note: This is the second part of a two-part article dealing with parental alienation of children and aiding the courts and counsel in recognizing parental alienation in cases involving custody and parenting time. Part I was published in the February issue at page 65.

The Family and Children’s Evaluation Team (“Team”),(1) which pioneered the team approach to child custody evaluations in Colorado, evaluated both parents and all of the children in approximately 600 cases fiom 1975 to 1995. The conclusions in this article result from the Team’s evaluations.

Psychological Characteristics of Alienating Parent

Parent Alienation Syndrome occurs when individuals who have certain psychological characteristics manage internal conflict or pain by transforming psychological pain into interpersonal conflict. Divorcing parents often experience humiliation, loss of self-esteem, guilt, ambivalence, fear, abandonment anxiety, jealousy, or intense anger. These normal but very painful emotions must be managed. Usually people in crisis rely on characteristic relationship styles and pain management techniques. The Team has found alienating parents to have the following characteristics:

1. A narcissistic or paranoid orientation to interactions and relationships with others, usually as the result of a personality disorder.(2) Both narcissistic and paranoid relationships are maintained by identification, rather than mutual appreciation and enjoyment of differences as well as similarities. Perfectionism and intolerance of personal flaws in self or others have deleterious effects on relationships. When others disagree, narcissistic and paranoid people feel abandoned, betrayed, and often rageful.

2. Reliance on defenses against psychological pain that result in externalizing unwanted or unacceptable feelings, ideas, attitudes, and responsibility for misfortunes so that more painful internal conflict is transformed into less painful interpersonal conflict. Examples of such defenses are phobias, projection, “splitting,” or obsessive preoccupation with the shortcomings of others in order to obscure from self and others the individual’s own shortcomings. “Splitting” results when feelings, judgments, or characteristics are polarized into opposite, exhaustive, and mutually exclusive categories (such as all good or all bad, right or wrong, love or hate, victim or perpetrator), then are assigned or directed separately to self and other. (I am good, you are bad.) The need for such defenses arises because alienating parents have little or no tolerance for internal conflict or even normal ambivalence. The interpersonal result of such defenses is intense interpersonal conflict.(3)

3. Evidence of an abnormal grieving process such that there is a preponderance of anger and an absence of sadness in reaction to the loss of the marital partner

4. A family history in which there is an absence of awareness of normal ambivalence and conflict about parents, enmeshment, or failure to differentiate and emancipate from parents; or a family culture in which “splitting” or externalizing is a prominent feature. Some alienating parents were raised in families in which there is unresolved or unacknowledged grief as the result of traumatic losses or of severe but unacknowledged emotional deprivation, usually in the form of absence of empathy. More frequently, alienating parents were favorite children or were overly indulged or idealized as children.

The Alienated Parent

The alienated parent also has psychological symptoms that are more or less characteristic. The most prominent characteristic is a history of being passive, overly accommodating, or emotionally constricted.

The passivity so often seen in alienated parents is difficult to evaluate during the crisis of the divorce. Some passivity is characterological and is usually detrimental to relationships. Some passivity, however, is an adaptation to a marital relationship with a controlling partner. Only a detailed, careful history of interactions and of functioning in other relationships before and after the marriage can lead to a clear understanding of whether the passive alienated parent has a longstanding characterological problem or has made an adaptation to a disturbed marriage. Although alienating parents often feel victimized and controlled, a thorough history may indicate that, in fact, the parent to be alienated has accommodated or capitulated in conflicts many more times than the alienating parent.

Although self-assertion may be healthy from the viewpoint of individual psychology, it can lead to an intense and destructive power struggle if the partner to the interaction is uncompromising, unable to tolerate awareness of personal flaws or differences of opinion, or prone to make accusations and engender guilt. In many cases of parent alienation, the passive partner not only tolerates criticism and accusation, but engages in self-questioning. Self-questioning is, of course, healthy, but it may lead to an honest conclusion different from the opinion of a critical partner. It can strengthen a relationship if the different conclusion can be accepted by both parties.

In relation to an alienating parent, such disagreements cannot be integrated or resolved. Self-assertion then leads to an intensified power struggle. To avoid intense, intractable, and destructive interpersonal conflict and to preserve the relationship, one partner must then “give in” and accommodate. That partner is usually the parent who is to be alienated.

One confusing aspect of the dynamics of parent alienation cases is that the alienated parent sometimes has more obvious symptoms of psychological distress, such as depression or anxiety, than the alienating parent. When psychological health is defined as the absence of internal distress or conflict, this factor makes it appear that the alienating parent is the healthier parent. However, this appearance is misleading.

The very presence of symptoms of depression or anxiety implies that internal conflict is present. Depression and anxiety both increase with passivity and when there are limited opportunities for self-assertion or directly expressed anger. Depression and passivity, of course, feed on each other. Depressed people do not have the energy to assert themselves and may not feel justified in doing so anyway; the passivity and emotional constriction lead to more depression. Although the intensity and pervasiveness of depression and anxiety must always be evaluated carefully in order to determine how these symptoms impact relationships in general and parenting in particular, it is possible for parents who are hurting internally to protect their children from their own pain and to be good parents.

The accommodating characteristic of the alienated parent sometimes includes a willingness to provide some justification for the alienating parent’s accusations. In general, people seem reluctant to acknowledge irrationality in others, especially those they love and admire. They look for ways to make sense out of the illogical or unrealistic ideas and behavior. When the partner to an interaction is paranoid but not psychotic or bizarre (and this is not only possible but more common than might be thought), the pressure to conform to the paranoid ideation is very strong. Even professionals can begin to doubt themselves, make unusual mistakes, or search hard for barely plausible explanations and rationalizations. The pressure on a spouse, of course, is much greater than that on a professional.

For example, it is well known that some men become physically abusive and intimidating in order to prevent a wife from leaving them. In contrast, some parent alienation cases are justified by spousal abuse, but the process is very different. There are reports of longstanding fear and anticipation of abuse, followed by a “confirming” but isolated incident in which actual abuse took place. The parent who lost control then leaves the marriage, intolerant of his own behavior. By that time he has sabotaged himself and justified the paranoid ideation or accusation of his partner.

In this example, the usually passive, alienated parent may be correctly designated the “cause” of the immediate intensified marital conflict and the incident of physical abuse is clearly an unacceptable way to resolve an intolerable situation. However, the marital pathology is usually much deeper than one incident and is usually longstanding. The spouse who makes a healthy decision to dissolve the very unhealthy relationship is often accused of desertion, abandonment, or seeking an unnecessary divorce. That spouse has often been unable to make the decision to leave prior to the incident because of the guilt it would engender and the accusation that was inevitable.

Parent alienation is not a gender-determined syndrome. Either the mother or the father can alienate; either can be alienated. Some parents have a history of attenuated involvement with their children until just prior to the marital separation. In some cases, this attenuated involvement is longstanding and indicates a lack of interest in parenting. However, in a number of cases that on evaluation were determined to be alienation cases, attenuated involvement was not the result of lack of interest in parenting or concern and caring for the child, but was circumstantial.

For example, some fathers of very young children have reported that they accommodated a maternal desire that they provide economic support for mother and child, emotional support for mother, and refrain from interfering with what would now be called an enmeshed mother/child unit. The marital balance was upset when either the child (because of a normal developmental push such as often occurs around age four, for example) or the father (believing that the child is now old enough to relate to someone other than the mother or responding to a change in the cultural definitions of expectations for parents) insisted on increased involvement.

An another example, some fathers have attempted to alienate mothers whose involvement with their children was compromised by physical or emotional illness or self-development or vocational requirements by making accusations of neglect even when the attenuated involvement was clearly temporary. Such fathers ignore the fact that good parenting is a joint venture. Each parent should be free to expect the other parent to be available and competent as a “primary parent” when the other is temporarily unavailable.

Effects of Parental Alienation on Children

Symptoms of emotional distress are seen in virtually all children of divorce. This distress usually dissipates when a routine that allows frequent and predictable contact with both parents is established. Children then use their energies to cope with and make use of the strengths and weaknesses of both parents and the other important people around them, just as children do in intact families. The importance and impact of the divorce recedes.

In parent alienation cases, routine may not be established for years. Intense conflict between parents may last until all emotional and financial resources are consumed. In the meantime, the child experiences unpredictable changes and interruptions in the relationships with both parents as different legal maneuvers take place. The emotional intensity, the pervasive and all-consuming preoccupation with divorce, danger, and protection, as well as the instability, are overwhelming.

Children of alienating parents face challenges in addition to the high conflict divorce. One important problem is that the relationship between the child and the alienating parent is disturbed. In many ways, parent alienation syndrome is the modern equivalent to school phobia, a common condition twenty years ago. The only difference is that the object of the phobia has changed. The divorced spouse has replaced the school. A researcher in child development who is primarily responsible for the research that led to successful treatment of school phobias clarified the type of attachment phobic children have with a primary parent and the impact of the pathology on the child’s development:

“Strong” attachment and also “intense” attachment are ambiguous; both of them and the former especially, might be thought to imply a satisfactory state of affairs….When we come to know a person of this sort it soon becomes evident that he has no confidence that his attachment figures will be accessible and responsive to him when he wants them to be and that he has adopted a strategy of remaining in close (physical) proximity to them in order to as far as possible ensure that they will be available.(4)

Such attachments are called “anxious attachments.” In a desperate attempt to maintain a relationship in the only ways possible (identification and alliance) with the parent who is, at the end of the alienation process, the only parent from a psychological and sometimes physical point of view, the child will mirror the personality and the distorted perceptions of the alienating parent. The blame for anxiety consequent to the insecurity of attachments will be externalized and attributed to the other parent. The same researcher points out that

[w]henever the patient’s problems can plausibly be ascribed to some extra-familial situation, the parents seize eagerly upon it. Unsympathetic teachers, bullying boys, barking dogs, the risk of a traffic accident–each is caught at hopefully in order to explain the patient’s condition. Thus are phobias born: and, because so often they provide a convenient family scapegoat, they grow to have a life of their own.(5)

Many alienated children develop symptoms of anxious attachment or separation anxiety when they are long past the age where separation anxiety is normal. The psychological distress is a result of the malignant emotional environment. The most common symptoms in young children are unusual distress during transitions from one parent to the other, sleep disturbances, regressions in achievement of regulation of bodily functions, and failure to achieve expected levels of impulse control. In elementary school age children, disorganization, inability to attend school work with resultant lowered grades, social isolation, and moodiness are often seen.

Teenagers often emancipate prematurely from adult control, becoming defiant and rigid. Such emancipation sometimes includes school refusal, with or without the permission of the parent. Alienated children of all ages show more problems with impulse control than normal, and many children show less ability to be considerate of the feelings of others (except when they accommodate a chosen parent) than normal for the child’s age.

Psychological distress is not the same as psychological damage. As the children grow older, there are more signs of actual damage to development, especially if the alienating parent is successful.

In the area of development of realistic self-concept and self-esteem, alienated children can develop several kinds of problems. These children are often overvalued in ways that are detrimental and are undervalued in ways that would be helpful to them. Because their symptoms have strong emotional appeal and thus become a valuable part of the legal evidence, they become the object of intense, nurturing attention, often under the guise of empathizing with the child. Their symptoms are discussed repeatedly with the child, and are blamed on the behavior of the alienated parent.

Psychological symptoms thus can sometimes become a perversely valued part of the child’s identity. Because other equally or more important aspects of the child’s experience are less valued and receive less empathic or sympathetic response, the child must use the acceptable symptoms to engage necessary and life-sustaining attention from others. Attempts to engage around interests or concerns that do not parallel the interests of the adults are unsuccessful. Sometimes, especially if the accusation used to justify alienation is child abuse, the alienating parent and allies that parent gathers will assert that the child has been permanently and irreversibly damaged. Such a prediction ensures that the child’s self-concept will be damaged and ignores both important conflicting research as well as information that can be gained directly hem the child.

Another area in which the development of a child can be harmed by the process of parent alienation syndrome is that of reality testing. That the child mirrors the distorted perceptions of the parent has been stated. There is a more disturbing aspect of this problem. Children need to develop the function of reality testing, not just about their parents, but also about the world in general. It is essential that they learn not to exclude important information just because it makes them uncomfortable or conflicted. It is also important that they learn to correct misunderstandings and change conclusions with new information.

Alienated children tend to become fixed and rigid in their opinions and ideas. They will obviously and actively reject any information that does not confirm their ideas. Too often, their ideas are strongly influenced by feelings, which they often cannot distinguish from facts without help. Having little sense of time (as most people do not during a crisis), they believe that the feelings of today will last forever. If those feelings are exploited or are treated as though they will never change, the child cannot resolve them.

Although alienated children are often taken to mental health professionals, they do not generally get the help they need. In order to be helpful, psychotherapy has to be based on accurate diagnosis. Alienating parents have a diagnosis already in mind when they engage a child therapist. The idea that the child’s symptoms can be attributed to any cause other than the one designated by the alienating parent meets with fierce resistance.

Therapists may be chosen because of a specialty in evaluating or treating the problem the parent has already “diagnosed.” Such therapists may deliberately limit the evaluation to comply with the contract, because of particular interests or because of lack of expertise in evaluating and treating other conditions. Therapists who have the ability and interest in providing general evaluations that consider a variety of alternative diagnoses and treatment plans can be helpful. However, conclusions and interventions that do not agree with the opinion of the alienating parent are often sabotaged, and the therapists who have them are discharged.

If material given by the child in therapy becomes part of the litigation between the parents, the child may feel that it is unsafe to expose thoughts and feelings in any setting. If the child forms a relationship of trust with the therapist and loses or feels betrayed in that relationship, that child’s ability ever to use therapy may be impaired.

Finally, alienated children face the problem of parent loss. If the alienating parent will not change, the child will lose one parent or the other. That loss will have consequences, especially if there is no help with sadness and grieving. Younger children will be vulnerable to the unmitigated pathology of whichever parent is chosen for them. Older children will choose, for better or worse. Some children will emancipate prematurely from both parents. All of them will incur the usual results of parental deprivation.

Final Comments

Although parent alienation cases are very difficult and painful, they also are a fruitful source of knowledge. These cases test therapists’ knowledge, theories, and professional discipline. They are often discouraging and frustrating. Still, an optimistic view can emerge from the struggles.

There is psychological significance to the fact that human beings reproduce sexually, not by cloning. Physically and psychologically, children combine the contributions of two separate, different individuals to form themselves. The child becomes a third individual, unique from either parent. One of the most adaptive aspects of human biology and human social development is that if one adult is not available or helpful, another can take over the parental functions. In an intact family, children quietly and unobtrusively take what they need from those who are available. Their preferences and identifications shift and change over time; different people are favored at different times, preferred according to developmental need and current common interests.

In the social systems humans have evolved, parenting is augmented by a whole variety of resources, including schools, therapists, extended family, and the family court. Children thus have a variety of relationships with many people who are different from them as well as with people who are very much the same. These relationships are important resources. They give perspective.

If children are allowed free access to these different people, they do not need a perfect parent. It is not individual parental mistakes that harm the development of children. It is the exclusion of these different people that places them in danger of becoming psychological clones, doomed to repeat parental mistakes rather than learning from them. Two parents who can recognize their imperfections and who know that they are mutually dependent can augment each other’s efforts, and protect the children from the undue influence of the human flaws and limitations of each other simply by providing a different perspective and experience.

Most children are born with the capacities to think for themselves, to process both negative and positive experience, and thereby restructure things so that each generation can improve over the last. These capacities can be developed. Given opportunities to perceive both healthy and problematic aspects of different people and to respond to those perceptions within the context of an empathic relationship, most children will develop a self that is not only different, but has a good chance of being more functionally effective than either parent has been. Of course, the children will not be perfect, either. They do not need to carry the burden of trying to be. No human being is perfect.

The child who is solely or primarily dependent on one parent is in jeopardy. The child who has access to multiple relationships with people who can help in different ways and learns to process a variety of experiences is our hope for the future.


1. The Family and Children’s Evaluation Team was comprised of the author of this article, Leona M. Kopetski, MSSW, and Claire Purcell, Ph.D.

2. Benjamin, Interpersonal Diagnosis and Treatment of Personality Disorders (N.Y.: Guilford Press, 1993) at 140-62 and 313-41; American Psychiatric Assoc., Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III-R (Wash. D.C.) at 348-351; Lyons, Personality Disorders: Diagnosis and Management (2d Ed. 1981) at 65-73 and 163-81.

3. Gabbard “Splitting in Hospital Treatment,” 146 Amer. J. Psych. 444 (1980).

4. Bowlby, Separation (N.Y.: Basic Books, 1973) at 212-13.

5. Id. at 315.

This newsletter is prepared by the CBA Family Law Section. This month’s article was written by Leona M. Kopetski, MSSW who worked as a clinical social worker specializing in the field of custody evaluation, in addition to maintaining a private practice in psychotherapy. She is now retired and living in Seeley Lake Montana, (406) 677-3278.

Categories: Professionals

Parental Alienation: Projective Identification & Provoked Target Parents

Parental Alienation: Projective Identification & Provoked Target Parents

(your ex-spouse may be faking it on the looking good scale)

Counseling Assessment,  Assignment  2

Paper for Graduate Class

by Monika Logan, LBSW

 No one disputes that many marriages end in divorce. A portion of these un-happy endings will result in blame, court battles, and bitterness. According to The Center for Divorce Education 10% of divorces are considered high-conflict. The couples that cannot end their divorce by agreeable terms do a great disservice to their children. Frequently, one parent turns a child against the other parent. As a result, the child may reject a once loved parent.  This phenomenon has been described in the literature for over 60 years and has been debated for about the last 15 years. It was coined in the 1980s by Dr. Gardner, as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Out of a rejection for the medical model, it is frequently referred to Parental Alienation (PA). As a caveat, PA and PAS are frequently used interchangeably by the lay person and in various professional circles.  Nevertheless, PA is a growing dilemma. Especially problematic is when the alignment becomes so entrenched that children join forces with one parent to completely reject and denigrate the other, once-loved parent. (Warshak, 2001; Baker & Andre, 2009; Darnall, 1998; Wallerstein & Kelly 1980).  This denigration may lead to a loss of extended family and severed relationships.

Not only is PA an increasing problem for families; it is contentious among professionals. Some clinicians are staunch supporters of the concept that multiple factors contribute to PA. Their clinical work includes samples of divorced families whose children reject them for valid, but nonetheless poignant reasons such as physical abuse, normal developmental phases, or in cases where a parent is an alcoholic.  One view (Johnston, 2001) offered is from a family systems’ perspective indicating that PA has many contributing factors. I agree that many factors may lead to estrangement and interrupt, if not destroy, a parent child relationship. Conversely, I propose that it is possible for one parent to harbor hate and resentment towards another; the detestation can be manifested in such a way that a child may suddenly reject a parent that they previously loved.  Irrational alienation is possible.

 According to Gardner’s formulation, “alienated parents are innocent of any behavior that justifies their children’s total alienation from them. If a parent’s behavior does warrant the children’s alienation, this is not a case of PAS” (Warshak, 2001). I agree with Warshak (2002), “When there is no brainwashing parent there is no PAS.” Clearly, it is ideal that the conflict between the parents that prevents the children from having a meaningful relationship should be addressed (Jaffe, Ashbourne, & Mamo, 2010). Yet, the stark reality is that “a minority of parents who suffer from personality and mental disorders may ignore the court and spend their waking hours finding ways to exhaust the other parent emotionally and financially” (Jaffe, et al., 2010).

 I consider that some parents’ cannot move on with life and may not recover from a divorce.  Clearly, alienating parents may benefit from counseling and divorce education programs. However, it is also possible that some will not benefit. A number of alienating parents defy court orders and do not believe that he or she has any parenting deficits. When custody battles enter the court, psychological testing may be administered.   One commonly utilized objective [italics added] test is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2). A study by Gordon, Stoffey & Bottinelli (2010) employed this test to determine differences in  primitive defenses such as splitting and projective identification, between cases of PAS and those without PAS. Gordon et al. (2010) defines projective identification as “when one denies personal faults, and projects them on to another and then treats and provokes that person accordingly” ( ¶ 2, p. 225). The concept of splitting is viewed as extreme black and white thinking. As an example, of splitting, alienating parents would describe their ex-spouse as a “bad parent” with no room for human error. In turn, alienating parents indoctrinate innocent children into believing mom or dad is a sorry no-good for nothing of a parent.

 Gordon et al. (2010) utilized a sample of 158 MMPI-2s from seven forensic psychology practices. Their study consisted of 76 cases of PAS; the control group consisted of 82 cases in which PAS was not present. The authors note, “because of the heated environment surrounding PAS fueled by a number of competing interest groups, only accumulated objective findings can fairly assess PAS” (Gordon et al., 2010). Their research consisted of two traditional validity indexes. The first included: ( L) Lie + (K) Correction for Defensiveness — (F) Unusual Psychopathology as a measure of primitive defenses. Gordon et al. (2010) notes that although L+K–F adds little additional independent information from the individual scales, this index has retest reliability greater than that of the individual scales (¶ 1, p. 216). The scale can measure the denial of aggressive motives. The authors additionally point out that the LFK relationship corresponds to the defense mechanism of splitting. The second utilized was the Goldberg Index: (Lie + Paranoia + Schizophrenia) – (Hysteria + Psychasthenia). Incorporating two indexes allows for measurement of “primitive defenses in different ways” (Gordon et al. 2010, ¶ 2, p. 217).

As the purpose of the assignment is to evaluate testing, provide my opinion and a personal reaction; I will not detail findings for all three hypothesis as listed by Gordon (2010) et. al.  For starters, I agree with the authors “the MMPI-2 proved to be a valuable research instrument in assessing primitive defenses” (¶ 3, p. 225). This test measured what it intended to measure. The combination of LFK provides insight regarding admission of lying, a tendency to spin answers, and if someone is “faking bad” for special attention (Neukrug & Fawcett, 2010). This test is also useful for the clinical scales. I concur, that multiple assessment measures should be used. Special caution is in order when the issue at hand is a child’s life. High-conflict custody decisions should be made by those with high standards, adherence to ethical standards, extensive training, and out-right common sense.  

It appears that the MMPI-2 is complementary to clinical interviews, self-reports, and observations. It is not in the child’s best interest to base custody solely on an adolescent’s voiced wish. While Texas law specifies that adolescents may choose; it seems logical that evaluators would realize that a child may be enticed into saying what one parent has taught them. Or, as another example, the adolescent may desire to live where more freedom and material benefit is granted. In cases of Parental Alienation, multiple measures are necessary. In Dr. Richard Warshak’s book, Divorce Poison, How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing (2010) a disheartening story is provided regarding a twelve- year- old girl that had an inexperienced social worker. The girl wrote her mother a letter and reported that she no longer desired a relationship. The girl’s reasoning was that the mother did not treat her with respect and treated her like a baby (p. 36). This was a case of Parental Alienation in which the father had provided instruction on writing the letter. The social worker in this case recommended that the mother get counseling to learn to deal with teenagers. This social workers failure to include multiple assessments and sound reasoning caused great harm. The outcome was a loss of mother daughter relationship. 

 The MMPI-2 sheds light on the fact that rejected parents, contrary to some findings, are not necessarily part of the problem. In no doubt there may be multiple contributing factors for a child to be estranged from a parent. Yet, I suggest that one person causes Parental Alienation; a bitter ex-spouse.  Pathological parents poison their children’s mind and destroy their souls. Gordon, Stoffey and Bottinelli (2008) findings suggest that rejected parents do not favor primitive defenses. As I support the idea that rejected parents in custody litigation are not psychologically different than parents in intact marriages; their research supported my reasoning. They found that alienating parents (both mothers and fathers) had higher T scores compared to the control group (comprised of mothers and fathers) who were in the normal range.

  I was not surprised by the findings.  It is not mind-boggling that one parent via words and actions can turn a child against another parent. This research exposed the poor emotional boundaries between alienating parents and their children. The authors note, “The sharing of primitive defenses helps the child maintain a pathological symbiosis with the idealized alienating parent who is seen as all good while the target parent is seen as all bad” (¶ 5, p. 225). At this point in my graduate studies, I deem that the MMPI-2 augments other assessment measures. In addition to other measures, assessment requires sound reasoning, reflection, and regard.

Categories: Professionals

Parental Alienation: Consequences of a Divorced Society. Looking for Answers

Parental Alienation: Looking for Answers  by Monika Logan

Parental Alienation is when a parent turns a child against the other parent. Wait—it gets worse. The child plays a role as well; the child over time will contribute to hateful antics for a once loved parent. As a warning, Parental Alienation does not only occur in divorced families, but also may take place in intact families. The majority of cases occur after a bitter divorce. The divorce is often one that the alienating parent did not want to endure. Consequently, the parent that was served the papers is at an impasse. They are lonely, angry and want revenge. Feeling hopeless and helpless they attempt to settle the score by aligning himself or herself with their child. Considering that marriages do not last, professionals should educate themselves on the perils of Parental Alienation.

The alignment that takes place in parental alienation is unyielding. Yet, it is anything but a normal parent-child bond. Various factors will strengthen the alignment. If the child’s interests, temperament and disposition are closer to the alienating parent, the other parent may end up losing a relationship. Boundaries are blurred and friendships are formed. The parent becomes the child’s new “BFF” (best friend forever). The alienated parent may have no idea why their child is full of anger, spite, and employs language beyond their years. They also feel helpless and wonder what to do about the utter disrespect that they endure. Alienated parents also worry endlessly about the values their child was once taught. Alienated parents’ remain curious as why his or her ex-spouse decides to discard all the good that was imparted to the child when they were an intact couple.

Parents additionally question why an ex-spouse would start a campaign of denigration. They are in awe that their child is used as a pawn.  To contribute to possible therapeutic options, Gestalt therapy might offer some insight. According to the Gestalt approach, “the past will make regular appearances in the present moment.” The approach is also phenomenological and based on the premise that people must be understood in the context of their ongoing relationship with the environment. For the parent left behind, their view is that their environment screwed them, life is unfair and they must seek revenge to savor their ego and rid internal conflict. They will stop at nothing, even at the expense of an innocent child. Freud might postulate that they are all ID.  Gestalt theory also posits that individuals have unfinished business. Unfinished business is when figures emerge from the background but are not completed nor resolved. Clearly, one of these figures may be an ex-spouse and a broken relationship. The feelings go unexpressed and will manifest as resentment, rage, hatred, pain anxiety, grief, guilt, and abandonment.

For the deserted parent they will seek to fill this void of unfinished business. They will buddy up with their child and verbally terrorize his or ex-spouse and poison the mind of their child. As the norm, the parent that perpetuates Parental Alienation, does not seek therapy; they do not believe that they have a problem. Consequently, their emotional debris goes unacknowledged. Their present-centered awareness is cluttered and their child is becoming brainwashed. While Gestalt therapy allows one possible lens to view the sickness of parental alienation, it is unlikely that the alienating parent will care how they are thinking, feeling, and doing. 

Currently, many helping professionals do not acknowledge the danger of Parental Alienation. It is not deemed treatment worthy. However, due to the divorce rate, especially vitriolic divorces, Parental Alienation should capture the attention of every helping professional. The notion that it is junk science should be discarded. Women’s groups should also realize that men too are capable of alienating. Parental Alienation is not biased but it is destructive. The mental abuse of innocent children will continue to occur while innocent parents’ live with worry. Continuing to deny Parental Alienation is harmful to children and families. Just one social networking site alone (facebook) has over 900 members . Individual members are from all around the world; seeking help, searching for children and desiring acknowledgment of PA. Rather than searching for fault-finding and debating treatment options, much can be learned from Person Centered Therapy.

Empathy is a key term in Person- Centered Therapy. When it comes to Parental Alienation, Carl Rogers core conditions should be embraced by those in helping positions.  I disagree with Rogers notion that we are all innately good and are in pursuit of truth and social responsiveness however; Rogers focus on empathy is desirable for alienated parents. Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is a deep and subjective understanding of the client with the client. Sure, empathy will not change that one’s child is alienated from him or her. Insight and understanding are not equal to change; nor will insight enforce court orders.

The fact is that the alienated parent may never have a restored relationship. Some may lose a child for months, years, or permanently. Parent’s are in emotional pain.  “A chief culprit of this pain from the parent’s point of view—apart from the loss of the child—is that of being blamed for the rejection of the child.” (Baker & Andre, 2008). The parents are also in a constant state of worry.   The child may continue to live in an unhealthy enmeshed adult-like relationship, in which all the other parent can do is sit back and watch.  However, when alienated parents are understood, healing can begin. “If the person does not feel understood and accepted, he or she may lose hope of returning to normal and may not seek help in the future. Genuine support, caring, and nonpossessive warmth can go a long way in building bridges that can motivate people to do something to work through and resolve a crisis” (Corey, 2009).

Categories: Professionals

Dr. Warshak’s study on the program for severely alienated children that has captured world-wide attention. The article passed a rigorous peer review process

Family Bridges: Using Insights From Social Science To Reconnect Parents and Alienated Children

This article is the first in a refereed journal on the program for severely alienated children that has captured world-wide attention. The article passed a rigorous peer review process and provides the first detailed account of Family Bridges: A Workshop for Troubled and Alienated Parent-Child Relationships. We received more than 100 requests throughout the world for advanced copies of this article before it was even published! This groundbreaking article became the centerpiece of an entire issue of a professional journal.

The article examines the benefits, drawbacks, controversies, and ethical issues regarding various options available to courts and parents in responding to alienated children, including reunification therapy, custodial transfers, boarding schools, and suspending attempts to repair damaged parent-child relationships.

Next, the article describes an innovative educational and experiential program, Family Bridges: A Workshop for Troubled and Alienated Parent-Child Relationships, that draws on social science research to help severely and unreasonably alienated children and adolescents and recovered abducted children adjust to court orders that place them with a parent they claim to hate or fear. The program’s goals, principles, structure, procedures, syllabus, limitations, and outcomes are presented.

The article reports on Dr. Warshak’s study of the outcomes of the first 12 families in which he was involved with Family Bridges. The sample was composed of 23 children, 8 of whom were 14 or older. The children had been alienated an average of 28 months. Seven of the rejected parents were mothers, five were fathers. At the workshop’s conclusion, 22 of 23 children, all of whom had failed experiences with counseling prior to enrollment, restored a positive relationship with the rejected parent. At follow-up, 18 of the 22 children maintained their gains; those who relapsed had premature contact with the alienating parent. 34 journal pages with 99 endnotes and citations to 79 social science and legal references.

Order now for delivery in February 2010.

See Dr. Warshak at


Categories: Professionals

Working with Alienated Children & Their Targeted Parents: Suggestions for Sound Practices for Mental Health Professionals

By Amy J.L. Baker, PhD, and Katherine Andre, PhD

Robert O’Block, Publisher, Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association

Divorce affects one million new children every year. Of these children, approximately 20% of their parents remain in conflict, with little, if any, cooperation (Garrity & Baris, 1994; Kelly, 2005). When children get caught in the middle of parental conflict, they are at risk for many psychosocial problems, including alignment with one parent against the other (e.g., Amato, 1994; Johnston, 1994; Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2001; Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1996). Especially problematic is when the alignment becomes so entrenched that children join forces with one parent to completely reject and denigrate the other, once-loved parent (Darnall, 1998; Wallerstein & Kelly 1980; Warshak, 2001).

Parents who encourage such alignments employ parental alienation (PA) strategies designed to turn a child against the other, targeted parent. The alienating parent is often filled with hatred, blame, anger, and shame and lacks awareness of the separate and independent needs of the children to have a relationship with the other parent (Ellis, 2005; Gardner, 1998; Rand, 1997). Through various strategies such as bad-mouthing, limiting contact, belittling, and withdrawing love, the alienating parent creates the impression that the targeted parent is dangerous, unloving, or unworthy, thus compelling the child to reject that parent (Baker, 2007a; Baker & Darnall, 2006). At its most extreme, when a child completely rejects the targeted parent, the result is referred to as severe alienation or parental alienation syndrome (PAS) (Gardner, 1998).

Mental health providers are among the first professionals to whom the targeted parents of alienated children turn to for help for their children or to whom courts refer for answers to accusations of brainwashing (Ellis, 2000). These parents and courts count on therapists to help whether it is to prevent continuing litigation in clogged courtrooms, or to intervene with counseling, as well as to give the parents supportive tools to repair and sustain the parent-child relationship. Because therapists are one of the first resources courts and parents use, they must be knowledgeable in the field of parental alienation and high-conflict divorce. They must be able to tolerate conflicting data from parents and children while searching for emotional truth within the children being counseled (Vestal, 1999). Along the same lines, Wallerstein insightfully comments in her forward to Marquardt’s (2005) book Between Two Worlds that what is needed is “an honest recognition of the experience of children” (p. xvii). In order to more honestly recognize and understand the experience of these children, mental health professionals must begin with the available knowledge that they currently have, incomplete as it is. To delay treatment due to incomplete information would be akin to a medical doctor refusing to treat a bleeding patient because he or she did not know what had caused the wound, and thus, by his or her refusal to treat the wound, the patient bleeds to death.

As Sternberg (2006) noted, “Scientific evidence regarding prevention and intervention is clearly helpful, but it is not yet sufficiently precise [in this parental alienation arena] so as to provide an answer to every question a psychotherapist might need to ask…” (p. 270). Because there is no longitudinal research that matches interventions with outcomes, the current authors propose a way of approaching treatment using sound scientific principles and evidence-based interventions with these children, in spite of the uncertainty. Mental health professionals remain in the trenches where they have to differentiate false accusations from legitimate ones and deal with the confused realities of these children and their parents. Common wisdom, increasing professional exposure and demand, and mounting professional opinion is that parental alienation exists and must be addressed in order to optimize children’s development (Ackerman, personal communication, August 19, 2007).

The purpose of this article is to suggest sound practices about parental alienation (PA) and parental alienation syndrome (PAS) and to identify some key prevention and intervention issues so that mental health professionals who counsel children and families experiencing loyalty conflicts or parental alienation tactics will be better prepared to help this highly vulnerable population. Consideration of these practices should enhance mental health providers’ ability to approach these issues from a more informed and reflective position.

Recognizing Parental Alienation

Recognition of parental alienation is a critical first step. Whether the task before the counselor is to halt the deterioration of the parent-child relationship and prevent the further effects of parental alienation or to restore a ruined relationship, therapists must correctly analyze and interpret the family dynamics in order to differentiate a child’s rejection due to parental alienation from a child’s rejection due to other causes such as estrangement or abuse (Stoltz & Key, 2002; Warshak, 2002). Discerning alienation from legitimate estrangement must be first.

Unfortunately, therapists do not have widely accepted parental alienation tests and other diagnostic tools available, nor is there a consensus regarding tools to use to assist in the diagnosis. For example, a recent survey of custody evaluators revealed a lack of consensus regarding diagnostic and assessment tools (Baker, 2007b).

For a diagnosis of PAS, we recommend following the lead of Dunne and Herrick (1994) and making an assessment through determination of the presence of the eight behavioral manifestations of PAS (described below), while ruling out alternative explanations for the child’s behavior such as bona fide abuse of the rejected parent (Gardner, 1999). In a clinical setting this can best be achieved through observing the child, talking with the child, and observing the child with his/her parents, in order to determine whether the child is exhibiting the eight behavioral manifestations associated with PAS (Gardner, 1998). To aid in that process, they are described in some detail.

The first is a campaign of denigration. The child becomes obsessed with hatred of the targeted parent. Parents who were once loved and valued seemingly overnight become hated and feared. This often happens so quickly that the targeted parent cannot believe that a loving child has turned into a hateful, spiteful person who refuses to so much as share a meal.

The second manifestation is weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for the depreciation of the targeted parent. The objections made in the campaign of denigration are often not of the magnitude that would lead a child to hate a parent, such as slurping soup or serving spicy food.

Third is a lack of ambivalence about the alienating parent. It is a truism of development that children are ambivalent about both of their parents. Even the best parents are imperfect or sets limits that cause resentment and frustration. A hallmark of PAS, however, is that the child expresses no ambivalence about the alienating parent, demonstrating an automatic, reflexive, idealized support. One parent becomes all good while the other becomes all bad.

Fourth, the child strongly asserts that the decision to reject the other parent is his or her own. This is what Gardner (1998) called the “Independent Thinker” phenomenon in which the child adamantly claims that the negative feelings are wholly his or her own. These children deny that their feelings about the targeted parent are in any way influenced by the alienating parent. An observer might conclude that the child has been brainwashed or unduly influenced, but, to the child, the experience is authentic and self-generated.

A fifth manifestation is absence of guilt about the treatment of the targeted parent. Gratitude for gifts, favors, or child support provided by the targeted parent is nonexistent. PAS children will try to get whatever they can from the targeted parent, believing that it is owed to them and that because that parent is such a despicable person, he or she doesn’t deserve to be treated with respect or gratitude.

A sixth manifestation of PAS is reflexive support for the alienating parent in the parental conflict. That is, there is no willingness or attempt to be impartial when faced with inter-parental conflicts. The PAS child has no interest in hearing the targeted parent’s point of view. As Gardner noted, PAS children often make the case for the alienating parent better than the parent does. Nothing the targeted parent could do or say would make any difference to the PAS child.

Seventh is the presence of borrowed scenarios. PAS children often make accusations toward the targeted parent that use phrases and ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent. One clue that a scenario is borrowed from an alienating parent is the child’s use of language and ideas that he or she does not seem to understand, such as making accusations that cannot be supported with detail or using words that cannot be defined.

And, finally, the hatred of the targeted parent spreads to his or her extended family. Not only is the targeted parent denigrated, despised, and avoided but so too are his or her entire family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are suddenly avoided and rejected.

Examination of the child’s behavior according to these eight components of PAS should help a therapist differentiate among possible causes for a child’s rejection, as it is unlikely that a child rejecting a parent due to abuse or poor parenting would exhibit these eight behaviors. For example, research and theory on abused and traumatized children consistently highlight that these child victims are quick to absolve the abusive parent of all blame and express quite strongly the wish to be reunified with that parent (e.g., Herman, 1992). Further, research with targeted parents supports the presence of these eight symptoms in alienated children (Baker & Darnall, 2007). The 19 signs of PAS as identified by Clawar and Rivlin (1991) and expanded upon by Baker (2007b) can also be used as guideposts in assessment.

In addition to the lack of assessment tools for identifying PAS or parental alienation, therapists might have difficulty dealing with or identifying it due to concerns about the controversy surrounding it as a diagnosis, which is fueled by the fact that is has not yet been accepted into the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Some may be swayed by the critique that there is inconsistent data to support the theory or that it is not a theory at all (Dallam, 1999). Others may take exception with the notion that alienation is attributable to the brainwashing of the child, and contend that most, if not all, cases are accounted for by inadequate parenting (Bruch, 2001; Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005). Yet another concern is that false allegations of PAS are made by abusive fathers in order to wrest custody away from the mothers (Dallam, 2008). We contend that none of these concerns provide compelling evidence that PAS does not exist in some cases—even if the diagnosis is not yet in the DSM, even if false allegations can be made, and even if it is difficult to differentiate alienation from estrangement.

Additionally, conscious and unconscious barriers may create resistance or avoidance of the therapist in approaching the possibility of PAS or parental alienation. These need to be brought into awareness in order to ensure that they do not interfere with appropriate assessments. For example, some alienating parents may be quite persuasive, intimidating, or charming, while some targeted parents may be unlikable, passive, anxious, or unable to articulate their perspective, combining to create a pull on the therapist to ally with one member of the triad and therefore miss the true dynamics at work (Weigel & Donovan, 2006).

Perhaps it is more useful for a therapist to simply ask, “Do I believe that the child is being manipulated by one parent to reject the other parent, who is not abusive or so inadequate as to deserve the child’s rejection?” Answering yes to this question is synonymous with concluding that the child is experiencing parental alienation. Some researchers and custody evaluators have developed elaborate systems and tools for assessing PAS in the context of formal evaluations (e.g., Kelly & Johnston, 2005) and might be reviewed for appropriateness of therapeutic fit.

Working with Targeted Parents and Alienated Children

Unfortunately, as Ellis (2000) noted, individual and family interventions with PAS cases have “met with dismal failure” (p. 228). At this point, the negative impact of parental alienation on children and families cannot be overstated due in part to the inability of the mental health community to provide adequate relief to these children. Targeted families and alienated children suffer from stress, loss, grief, anger, and fear among other intense and uncomfortable emotions (Baker, 2007a; Ellis, 2005; Gardner, 2001; Vassiliou & Cartwright, 2001). Below are some of the initial and primary concerns for therapists working with this population. These are based on clinical wisdom gained through our combined experience with the phenomenon of parental alienation and PAS in clinical practice and research and integrated with evidence-based therapeutic practices.

Working with Targeted Parents

Working with alienated children requires contact with targeted parents and can range from support or empowerment to necessary correction and improvement in parenting skill areas. Whatever the task, therapists and counselors must remember that the targeted parent’s pain and suffering is immense (Ellis, 2005; Gardner, 2001). A chief culprit of this pain from the parent’s point of view—apart from the loss of the child—is that of being blamed for the rejection of the child. Although some professionals and laypeople attribute the cause of the child’s rejection solely to the alienating parent—believing that without that parent’s use of parental alienation tactics, the child would not be rejecting that parent—another school of thought, one perhaps more widely accepted, attributes some responsibility to the targeted parent (e.g., Johnston, Walters, & Olesen, 2005). To this way of thinking, there are several factors, including parenting weaknesses or passivity within targeted parents that make the parent-child relationship vulnerable to alignment with the alienating parent.

In terms of working with targeted parents, it is vital to acknowledge their pain and loss without blaming them for the difficult situation in which they find themselves. Of course, at the same time, it will be useful to determine if there are ways to improve parenting skills and parent-child communication. Parent Child Interactive Therapy (PCIT) may be promising in this regard. PCIT uses in vivo coaching to correct and shape parent communications (Herschell & McNeil, 2005). Working with the parent in a nonjudgmental strengths-based manner can address any vulnerable areas and help to repair the relationship. Not only will it bring power back to the targeted parent, but it can also enhance trust between the child and parent and help to remove doubts and fears within the child about the parent’s ability to parent.

Some of the tasks of treatment for targeted parents include learning to manage the grief, loss, rage, and shame of being a targeted parent; learning to manage the constant frustration and struggle involved in typically chronic legal battles and confrontations; and finding some peace and happiness within such a painful situation. Baker (2007a) offers several useful starting places for therapists to consider in working with alienating parents who may or may not benefit from a referral to a separate therapist. Greenberg (2002) offers strategies for working with emotional complexity and for guiding toward adaptive functioning. In addition, cognitive behavioral therapy might be useful for challenging and overcoming assumptions of helplessness and hopelessness (Graham, 2004).

Working with Alienated Children

As stated earlier, alienated and at-risk children represent a large population of children in need. While parental alientation affects only a fraction of divorced families, the absolute numbers are mounting. Realistically, counselors cannot defer treatment until effectiveness research has identified a list of psychotherapeutic interventions. In keeping with sound therapeutic practice, foremost in importance is the building of trust and therapeutic alliance. Alienated children are being programmed at various intensities to distrust primary attachments (Clawar & Rivlin, 1991). Thus, they may have difficulty trusting yet another “caring” adult. An essential task for the therapist will be to acknowledge the child’s reality without validating the negative view of the targeted parent. Making reflections on the child’s feelings using or modifying tools and techniques proposed in Greenberg (2002) is one way to build trust and create a therapeutic alliance. Another is through the use of play. Modifications of play interventions proposed in Reddy et al.’s (2005), Empirically Based Play Interventions for Children, most notably, the chapter on fostering resilience following divorce, might also provide ideas and guidelines.

Acknowledging that the therapist and child patient/client do not have a completely shared understanding of the situation while maintaining an empathic stance for the bind the child is in can also help establish therapeutic alliance. Though not to be rushed, once trust is established, important work can be accomplished. Ideally, the work would help the child develop a more balanced view of both parents and help the child develop critical thinking skills that can be employed in the face of the emotional manipulation of the alienating parent (Baker, 2007a; Gardner, 1998; Warshak, 2001). Integration of exit counseling strategies used with former cult members (e.g., Clark, Giambalvo, Giambalvo, Garvey, & Langone, 1993) with standard cognitive behavioral therapy for adjusting distorted thinking styles (Ronen, 2007) would probably be useful to explore.

For children who are severely alienated from the targeted parent, more active interventions may be called for, including reunification therapy. For example, Weitzman (2004) describes a one-way-mirror-based protocol for reuniting children with an estranged/alienated parent. Drawing on desensitization theory, Weitzman developed a procedure for bringing the child into successive proximity to the feared parent, only after clinical and forensic work is done to ensure cooperation of both parents (often through court orders).

Regardless of level of alienation, key issues in therapy with alienated children, in addition to difficulty with trust, will likely be to de-enmesh with the alienating parent. Johnston and Campbell (1988) observed in their study of aligned children that the mechanisms of “denial, distortion, and splitting” were present. Their finding suggests that it may be useful to look for these supporting defense mechanisms and then, if present, to rely on effective treatment strategies for refuting or treating them. There are other key issues to keep in mind:

  1. Self esteem—these children have come to believe that one of their parents does not love them, is unworthy of their love, and is someone with whom it is unwise to identify.
  2. Corrupted moral compass—they have been encouraged to be disrespectful, ungrateful, entitled, and parentified.
  3. Lack of independence—they have been encouraged to be overly dependent on the alienating parent’s acceptance.
  4. Relapse prevention—they are under constant pressure to behave a certain way in order to avoid the rejection of the alienating parent.
  5. Loss of identity—if it is unsafe to identify with the rejected parent then certain parts of the self identity may become lost as well. The alienating father who denigrates the mother for her academic abilities will create difficulty for a child embracing her own academic interests and talents.

Baker (2007a) expands on these clinical directions for working with alienated children, and Garber (2004) offers advice and guidance to help therapists avoid parental sabotage of an alienated child’s therapy. Baker and Darnall (2007) and case studies of patients of the second author also offer clinical insight into working with alienated children by highlighting what may be referred to as cracks or chinks in the armor. In the Baker and Darnall study, 68 parents who believed that their children were severely alienated from them described their children along several dimensions including the eight components of PAS. Even the most alienated children—described as exhibiting all eight behaviors most of the time—were revealed to sometimes indicate areas where the alienation was not fully solidified or entrenched. Therapists who are attuned to these “chinks” may be able to leverage them into opportunities for helping the child’s relationship with the targeted parent evolve beyond one of utter rejection and hostility.

Similarly, there may be family members who have not yet or may never “buy into” the alienation scenario. For example, in a multi-sibling family, not all children may become alienated from the targeted parent. It is also possible that an extended family member of the targeted parent is not fully rejected, or an extended family member of the alienating parent does not endorse the denigration of the targeted parent. Each of these individuals offers to the knowledgeable and attuned therapist windows of opportunity for helping the child adjust his or her perceptions and experiences of both the alienating and the targeted parent.

Throughout, therapists should be reflecting on their own feelings, experiences, and assumptions about parental alienation in order to avoid bias and projections onto patient therapeutic work. For example, therapists with their own histories of loyalty conflicts and alignments may hold hidden assumptions that could interfere with their ability to discern the realities of any specific case (Feinberg & Greene, 1995). Pickar (2007) points out that it is especially important for custody evaluators to engage in self-inspection during “best interest of the child” evaluations. The therapist is likely to experience the same confusing pull between the parents as the child does—as each parent tries to make his or her case to the therapist—which needs to be examined and tolerated. Otherwise, the therapist may rush to resolve the dilemma by aligning against the targeted parent, thus, allowing for a shared—albeit false—reality with the child. Weigel and Donovan (2006) suggest a similar attunement to one’s own issues for family and marriage counselors working with alienation cases.

To navigate these complex family dynamics, therapists should stay abreast of current knowledge and techniques in the field, stay attuned to their clinical intuitions, and seek support and advice as needed.

Next Steps For the General Public

Of primary importance for society in addressing this problem is to increase the awareness of the general public, including parents who may become targeted for parental alienation. Too often these parents do not know what is happening until it is too late. At that point they are left with a broken relationship and a severely alienated child. Awareness among the general public could serve to protect future generations of children and families and can provide much-needed support and guidance for those affected by it today. At a minimum, awareness could stop the blaming of targeted parents, which adds an additional level of pain and suffering.

One recent development is the creation of Web sites/organizations devoted to this issue, including one particularly prominent group established by a grassroots collection of targeted parents (parental alienation awareness organization). This and similar efforts can provide the general public with basic information and several avenues for further education and support. For example, through the Parental Alienation Awareness Organization’s efforts, governors in nine states have declared April 25 Parental Alienation Awareness Day.

For Mental Health Professionals

The large numbers of children suffering from or at risk for alienation suggest a need for expanded training of mental health professionals. As courts order custody evaluations, dictate mandatory mediation, and order parent education classes, there is an even greater need for trained professionals who can recognize alienation and work with families dealing with it. They need to be taught how to think about alienation in sound clinical ways and to integrate what is known about alienation with evidence-based treatments that are appropriate for this population.

Additionally, other mental health professionals who routinely interact with children and families need to be included in such trainings as well. School psychologists and school social workers, for example, are likely to come into contact with families facing parental alienation. If they are not aware of this phenomenon, they will be missing an important piece of the child’s context affecting school performance and behavioral adjustment. They also could function as consultants to teachers and guidance counselors in schools. School staffs traditionally try to maintain neutrality in the face of inter-parental conflict. Unfortunately, this can work to the advantage of an alienating parent. Thus, mental health professionals working within schools could support children’s relationships with targeted parents and function as a sounding board for teachers seeking clarity about alienation cases, so that they do not unwittingly get pulled onto the side of an alienating parent.

As training opportunities are expanded, research techniques such as single participant designs for tracking patient progress (Goodheart, 2006, p. 44) might be included in training education.

For Legal Professionals

Too often, law enforcement, divorce attorneys, mediators, guardian Ad Litems, and judges are unfamiliar or undereducated about the phenomenon of parental alienation. Some may be biased against the label PAS (Gardner, 2002). Thus, a child claiming to want nothing to do with one parent may be perceived to be acting out of a healthy self-interest rather than out of an unhealthy alliance with an alienating parent. Understanding severe parental alienation can provide much-needed legal support aimed at protecting the child’s relationship with the targeted parent rather than inadvertently fostering rejection.


Just as no one situation produces the alienated child, no one psychotherapeutic intervention or prevention strategy works for all. Mental health professionals need to be able to recognize parental alienation and to strategize treatments based on sound scientific practice. Counselors also need to be ready to confer with experts, to work with professionals from other disciplines, to apply strategically and appropriately evidence-based practices, and then to do what can be done to free the alienated and at-risk child from the short- and long-term damaging effects of the loyalty conflicts of PAS and parental alienation.

Categories: Professionals

How to deal with ‘toxic’ parents

The Toronto Star, Susan Pigg LIVING REPORTER, March 14, 2009

When Toronto lawyer Brian Ludmer speaks about the suffering caused by parental alienation, the words come from his head and his heart.

He’s seen the devastation of a mother’s orchestrated campaign to make her children hate their father, or how a dad can use a 4-year-old as a weapon against his mother in the ugly aftermath of divorce.

The team at Family Solutions, which helps families move past bitter and angry divorces: (from left) Barbara Fidler, Helen Radovanovic, Linda Chodos, Jan Schloss and Ted Horowitz.

Ludmer is, by training, a corporate lawyer. But he’s being “swamped” by desperate parents looking for help reconnecting with their children. “Experts in this field will tell you that they’ve never met a lawyer who understands this the way that I do,” says Ludmer.

That’s because he’s also lived it.

“Parental alienation is a plague. It’s rampant out there,” says Ludmer, 48, who declined to talk about his own case for fear of upsetting his children. “This stuff has been going on for a hundred years. It’s just that now it has a name.”

Later this month, Ludmer will address the first international conference on parental alienation in Toronto. He’ll join the growing chorus of parents, judges, lawyers, social workers and mental health professionals who believe the courts are ill-equipped to deal with “toxic” parents.

“Canada seems to be a hotbed of parental alienation court activity,” says Amy Baker, a New York-based researcher who’s written two books, one chronicling the emotional suffering that travels in parental alienation’s wake.

“I think there are some very brave judges who are willing to really think through the implications of alienation and really try to deal with it.

“The bottom line is that to turn a child against a parent is to turn a child against himself.”

Two months ago, a Toronto judge stripped a mother of custody of her three daughters after a decade-long campaign to keep the kids from their father. She was ordered to pick up the tab for a U.S. program aimed at helping the girls, ages 9 to 14, reconnect with their dad.

This week, an 18-year-old from Mississauga asked to be awarded custody of his two younger brothers caught up in a decade of family “warfare.” He also asked that parental alienation experts, such as psychologists Randy Rand and Richard Warshak, be forbidden from further contact with the boys. He called programs, such as their controversial Family Workshop for Alienated Children, “voodoo science.”

But there’s so much concern about the snail’s pace of the overloaded family court system and the lack of treatment facilities in Canada that Ludmer has been working with a group of professionals on plans for Toronto’s first Family Reunification Clinic. They hope to have the facility open within a year, offering treatment based on the work of Rand and Warshak.

“The most important part (of undoing alienation) is the after care,” says Ludmer, who’s handled more than 50 parental alienation cases in the last four years. “We don’t want to be bundling kids on a plane and sending them off to the United States. This will make it easier and less disruptive to get the whole family the help they need.”

The planned centre is sure to set off a storm of controversy among those who consider Warshak and Rand’s work cult-like “deprogramming” and question whether Parental Alienation Syndrome isn’t just an excuse for bad, or even abusive, parents.

“I think the therapy often does way more harm than any so-called parental alienation could do. It demoralizes kids, it makes them feel like they’re not being listened to and involved. It demeans them,” says Joyanna Silberg of the U.S.-based Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence, a group of health professionals.

“One of the reasons this is so controversial is because it’s become an industry – a money-making industry – where purveyors of these so-called therapies and evaluation procedures are using things that the scientific community doesn’t automatically accept, but know that judges are accepting in court to affect children’s lives in an extreme way.”

Veteran family court judge Harvey Brownstone sums up the growing debate best: “The jury is still out on the whole issue of parental alienation. When a child adamantly refuses to see a parent, it is not easy to know why. It could be they’re bored, or that they don’t like the parent’s new partner. The situation is usually layered and complex.”

If there is a growing certainty about one thing, it’s that these cases need to be dealt with quickly.

“Time is the enemy of the alienated parent,” says Baker, whose book Breaking the Ties that Bind, chronicles the difficult lives of 40 adults who were alienated as children. Since the books, she’s met hundreds of others, including one who went as far as plastic surgery to wipe out the shame of looking like his father. “These cases should be fast-tracked because alienating parents exploit the ability for the courts to delay things to their benefit. The more time they have with the kid, the more time that kid is going to resist reconciliation.”

Veteran family law lawyer Jeffery Wilson – who was involved in Ontario’s first court case around alienation in 1981 and is representing the Mississauga teen fighting for his brothers – believes it’s time for more drastic measures. It’s been estimated that some 60 per cent of litigants in “high-conflict” divorces suffer from personality disorders that can turn a discussion of “Who gets the kids for Christmas?” into a months-long power struggle marked by what Ludmer calls “bad messaging and bad-mouthing.”

Wilson is calling for a government-funded “High-Conflict Response Team” that could step in before these cases hit the courts. They would have the power to sort out complex disputes, impose binding judgments and get the kids – and their parents – counselling and treatment.

Family Solutions is a North York-based team of well-respected psychologists and social workers who started meeting five years ago to compare notes on difficult cases. Now they offer everything from mediation to intensive counselling in high-conflict divorces. They’ve seen a significant growth in parental alienation and have had some success with clients who’ve worked with Rand and Warshak.

“There’s a lot of work we still need to do,” acknowledges Linda Chodos, a social worker with Family Solutions. “We don’t yet have a lot of evidence-based research that shows what kind of intervention works best.”

Rand and Warshak are based in California and Texas respectively and, in the first phase of their workshop, meet the children and the alienated parent for “educational” sessions that can include simple outings where they start to get reacquainted. (Rand apparently travelled to meet the siblings of the 18-year-old in a Montreal hotel room, but their mother, who claims to have been alienated by the father, gave up a day later when they refused to participate in the four-day session.)

“It’s to give the child a break – a chance to catch his or her breath and to give them just a few days not to be torn between the two parents,” says Ted Horowitz, a veteran social worker with Family Solutions.

The alienator is brought in as part of the second part of the program, all of which is aimed at making them aware of the damage they are doing and the need to form a new partnership around parenting.

“There is no deprogramming and never has been,” says Jacqueline Vanbetlehem, a mental health therapist with Family Solutions. “You have to really look at the circumstances of the family before you even recommend such a program. Sometimes the court intervention is a relief to these children because they don’t have to choose (between parents) anymore.”

Warshak told the Ontario Bar Association’s annual meeting last month that 17 out of 21 children who have completed the “expensive” program have forged good relationships with the other parent that continue more than two years later. The results are currently undergoing peer review.

“One of the misperceptions around this is that it’s meant to shift allegiances from one parent to the other,” says Horowitz. “The idea is to balance the family – to pull them together. Both parents need to be part of the treatment, and the children need to see their parents working together.”

Categories: Professionals

DSM & Inclusion:

There appears to be some recognition that alienation is not the depiction of good mental health. As one article notes, “ It is not a good thing if a child has bonded to an alienating parent, but disrupting that child and pulling them away from whatever sense of security they have may end up being more harmful than good in the long run.” Professionals and alienated parents should be alarmed at the word “but.” The reality is the sense of security is false. If the child shares a similar disposition and shared activities that is one thing; it is quite another if the child prefers one parent over another due to vindictive strategies.

Security is not legitimate if the parent child relationship is one-sided and is predicated on lies. It is one thing for a child to report that he or she loves mom or dad. It is another when the child reports that he or she feels sorry for them and they cannot see the other parent because “mom or dad will get lonely.” It is not the child’s job to be responsible for adult well-being. According to Baker (2007) PAS is similar to cults in that fear activates dependency needs. Cult members undeniably have a sense of security; however, the sense of security is false. Most professionals realize that leaving a cult is life alternating, difficult, and may have consequences. Yet, most rational individuals realize that the dependency on the cult leader does not promote good mental health.

As noted by Summers & Summers (2006) “one of the priorities and general view of the courts is that a child should have a meaningful and regular contact with both parents. If a child does not have contact with the target parent, this may be very harmful to the children and later in adult life.” Some debates revolve around what role the “alienated” parent plays in PAS. Clearly, PAS is not caused by the alienating parent. Some ex-spouses are malicious and remain bitter towards his or her ex spouse years after the divorce. For some, the only way “to get back” at their ex spouse is to turn their children against them. As a result of the wear and tear, some alienated parents become passive. That is, they feel defeated after years of rejection. One must keep in mind that the target parent may have had to endure years of hearing put-downs, reading odious letters, and being out right rejected. Years of rebuff towards the target parent greatly differs than a few episodes of teenage antics. Hence, it is imperative not only for target parents, but for children that PAS be recognized for the infirmity that it is. Temporary disruption is far better than years of deception.

Categories: Professionals
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