The Alienation of Children
Composite case from actual examples
Custody Newsletter, Issue #9, 1993
The parents of Amy (age 10) and Kevin (age 7) are divorcing after 13
years of marriage. Their father, by temporary stipulation, has moved from
the marital home. He is entitled to visit the children on alternating weekends
and one evening during the week. Soon, the children refuse to go with him.
At first, they do not want to leave Mom; they say they are afraid to go.
When Dad comes to the house, Mom tells him that she will "not force
the children to go." "Visitation is up to them," and she
will "not interfere in their decision". The children refuse to
talk with him on the phone. Mom calls him names when he phones and complains
constantly about her financial situation, blaming him, all within hearing
of the children.
Dad attempts to talk with the children about the situation, then to
bribe them with movies, shopping trips, toys. They become sullen with him
and resistant to coming. Anything, routine doctor visits or invitations
from a friend, serve as excuses to avoid visits.
When asked, the children say "Dad is mean to us." When asked
to give specific examples, their stories are not convincing. "He yells
too loud when we make noise." "He made me climb all the way to
the top of a mountain." "He gets mad at me about my homework."
They say he has never hit them, but are afraid he will.
These children are in the process of becoming alienated from their father.
Parental alienation is the creation of a singular relationship between
a child and one parent, to the exclusion of the other parent. The fully
alienated child is a child who does not wish to have any contact whatsoever
with one parent and who expresses only negative feelings for that parent
and only positive feelings for the other parent. This child has lost the
range of feelings for both parents that is normal for a child.
We will call the parent who acts to create such a singular relationship
between the child and himself the "alienating parent" 1.
The parent who is excluded from the singular relationship is "the
target parent." We note that alienation can occur both ways, each
parent attempting to alienate the child from the other.
II. Harm to the Child
The persistent quality of the conflict combined with its enduring nature
seriously endangers the mental health of the parents and the psychological
development of the children. Under the guise of fighting for the child,
the parents may succeed in inflicting severe emotional suffering on the
very person whose protection and well-being is the presumed rationale for
the battle" (emphasis added) 2,3.
It is psychologically harmful to children to be deprived of a healthy
relationship with one parent.
"Visitation agreements must insure that the emotional bond of the
child with both parents is protected. There is substantial research that
indicates that children need contact with adults of both sexes for balanced
With the exception of abuse, there is no good reason why a child should
not want to spend some time with each of her parents, and, even with abuse,
most children still want to maintain some relationship with the abusive
parent. It is the job of the parents, the professionals and the courts
to see that such contact is possible under safe circumstances 5
While alienating messages and behavior affect a child negatively and
impact upon the child's growth and development, the impact on the child
may not vary with the parent's intentions. The effect will be to place
the child in a severe loyalty bind, a position wherein the child believes
she must choose which of her two parents she will "love" more.
To have to choose between parents is itself damaging to the child, and,
if the end result is the exclusion of a parent from the child's life, the
injury is irreparable.
There is a continuum of alienating parental behaviors which cause harm
to children, and all positions on this continuum need be of concern to
the professionals and the courts.
III. The Family Systems Approach
All families are made up of individuals who live together in relatively
stable intimate groups with the ostensible purpose of supporting and caring
for each other. Family members develop their own rules and boundaries,
spoken and unspoken, about the ways that they will behave with each other,
support and care for each other. Each family's rules and boundaries change
over time to reflect modifications in membership, the evolving needs of
its members and the realities of the outer world. Most changes in the family
system are gradual, but some events force cataclysmic upheaval. Divorce
is usually such an event.
Unless a separating family can change its own rules and boundaries without
outside intervention, the divorce process itself may reach an impasse,
the term applied when the divorce process itself becomes "stuck"
and the family system fails to appropriately restructure itself. When there
is an impasse, any move by anyone, family member, attorney, spouse, is
met with a counter move resulting in no forward progress.
The impasse creates a system of its own, with its own membership, rules
and boundaries. Although little recognized by professionals, membership
in the divorce impasse system will include all members of the family living
together and all professionals involved in "helping" the family
get a divorce, i.e. the lawyers, mediators, therapists and even the judge.
A divorce impasse can occur at three levels: an internal level (inside
an individual); an interactional level (between two individuals); and/or
an external level (within the larger social and familial system) 6.
An impasse at any one of the levels will affect the entire system, and
how each individual member responds will affect all members, especially
The children themselves are members in both the changing family system
and in the developing broader divorce impasse system. As a member of the
family system, a child is attached legally, emotionally and psychologically
to each of his parents. As a member of a divorce impasse system, a child
is often asked to ally himself with one parent or the other, a request
which clearly places the child in a loyalty bind. Sometimes the request,
either overtly or covertly, is that the child make the alliance exclusive.
All members of the divorce impasse system, including the professionals,
are affected by the loyalty struggles and may become polarized.
IV. Motivation for Alienation
An alienating parent most likely has strong underlying feelings and
emotions left over from earlier unresolved emotional issues which have
been resuscitated and compounded by the pain of the divorce. The individual,
in attempting to ward off these powerful and intensely uncomfortable feelings,
develops behavioral strategies that involve the children. One solution
to the pain and anger is to sue for custody of the child and to endeavor
to punish the other parent by seeking his or her exclusion. The internal
world of an alienating parent can have complex origins which are beyond
the scope of this article.
If the motivating factors are unconscious, the alienating parent may
not feel and/or may not be aware of the feelings and emotions described
above. Unaware parents may deny alienating behavior convincingly, but nonetheless,
be involved in it.
Parents may also be aware of their angry or hopeless feelings but may
consciously desire to protect the child. They tell their attorneys and
the court of their conscious plans; however, despite the conscious desires,
they may, unintentionally and unwittingly, engage in alienating behavior,
driven by less conscious needs.
Frequently, the unconscious or unintentional alienating behavior results
in the milder form of alienation of the child from the target parent. Nonetheless,
it is important to recognize the concrete signs of alienating behavior
in order to thwart its development.
Courts should not tolerate alienating behavior simply because the intention
to alienate is denied.
Neither should the courts predicate a custody award on the hopes that
the behavior witnessed and cited in court is merely a product of the acrimony
generated by the litigation. Parties engaged in a high conflict divorce
may show their worst behavior to all, but it is impossible to predict,
as the courts so often wish they could do, whether this behavior will lessen
after the final resolution of the case. In a case in which the Plaintiff
father was awarded custody against the recommendation of the Guardian ad
Litem, the Marital Master concluded:
"The (Father) has also demonstrated some behaviors which have been
troublesome to the Master as well as the Guardian ad Litem. The (Father)
has been manipulative in the presentation of this case, the Master concludes
that he has inappropriately attempted to influence and pressure the children
into giving negative information about their mother and he has demonstrated
a lack of cooperation and flexibility in respecting the (Mother's) parental
rights. It is the hope of the Master that these factors have been the result
of this litigation and the hostility between the parties will resolve themselves
and not be a factor following this decree." S.L. v. S.L., Superior
Here, the master has been witness to a divorce impasse which may not
resolve itself without intervention, and the parties' statements of good
intentions should not be relied upon to bring about a reversal of a behavioral
trend already witnessed.
V. Recognition of Alienating Behaviors
A. The Continuum: Distinguishing between "Typical" Divorce
In a "cooperative" divorce, both parents work together to
restructure their own relationship and their family to allow the children
as normal a relationship with each of them as is possible. This means cooperating
as to finances, logistics and schedules as well as actively supporting
the children's emotional relationships with the other parent and the extended
All parties to divorce experience a wide range of intense emotions,
including rage, disappointment, hurt and fear. In "cooperative"
divorces the parties consciously try not to engage in behavior they understand
to be inflammatory to the other side.
However, an angry divorce is not necessarily an alienating one. Alienation
occurs when the parties to divorce or custody litigation use their children
to meet their own emotional needs, as vehicles to express or carry their
intense emotions or as pawns to manipulate as a way of inflicting retribution
on the other side. The focus in determining whether or not there is alienation
in an angry divorce must be not on the degree of rage or loss expressed,
but on behavioral willingness to involve the children.
Parental alienation occurs along a broad continuum, based on the level
of internal distress of the alienating parent, the vulnerability of the
child and the responses of the target parent as well as on the responses
of the external system (family, attorneys, mental health professionals,
the legal system). The range may be from children who experience significant
discomfort at transition times (mild), through children who feel compelled
to keep separate worlds and identities when with each parent (moderate),
to children who refuse to have anything to do with the target parent and
become obsessed with their hatred (severe).
There are alienating parents who are completely unaware of either their
emotional state, the motivation to alienate, or the effects of their behavior
(unconscious), while at the other end of the continuum, there are parents
who absolutely intend to bind the child to themselves in an exclusive relationship
and are explicit in their statements and behavior (overt).
Recognizing the mild form of alienating behavior is tricky: the alienating
behavior is subtle, and the alienating parent prone to deny motivation
and acts, and driven to verbally assert the opposite of what is true.
Although such statements are sincerely meant, the alienating parent's
view of the other parent is compromised at this stage, as indicated by
behavior. Not aware of the feelings that motivate the unintentional alienating
behavior, the evaluator must look at the underlying messages that are given
directly to the child. In this milder form there is less polarization of
the external sources of the divorce impasse system (attorneys, courts).
The communications to the child of the regard with which the other parent
is held is the key to detecting alienating behavior.
Examples of mild forms of alienating behavior include:
- Little regard for the importance of visitation/contact with the other
Lack of value regarding communication between visits:
- "You're welcome to visit with Mom; you make the choice; I won't
- No encouragement of visits;
- No concern over missed visits;
- No interest in the child's activities or experiences during visitation
(in a positive manner);
Inability to tolerate the presence of the other parent even at events
important to the child:
- No encouragement of communication between visits;
- Little awareness of the distress a child may feel if a visit or phone
call is missed.
Disregard for the importance of the relationship to the child:
- "I won't go to any soccer games if your mother is there."
- Displaying a willingness to apply for and accept a new job away from
the other parent, without regard to the child's relationship with that
At this stage alienation is most likely to become obvious during family
system transition times, such as when children leave one home and go to
another, when one parent remarries or has another child. The knowledge
that a child needs the other parent may be present, but this rational belief
may become overwhelmed by internal and interactional problems at this phase.
The alienating parent has some awareness of her emotional motivations
(fear of loss, rage) and little sense of the value of the target parent.
Sometimes, an alienating parent will understand the theoretical importance
of the other parent in the life of her child, but believes that in her
case, the other parent, due to character deficiencies, cannot be important
to the child. Their statements and behaviors are subtle but damaging to
- Communications of dislike of visitation:
Refusal to hear anything about the other parent (especially if it is
- "You can visit with your Dad, but you know how I feel about it."
- "How can you go to see your father when you know...I've been sick;
Aunt B is here..."
- "Visitation with your Dad is really up to you."
Delights in hearing negative news about the other parent;
Refusal to speak directly with the other parent:
- "That's between you and your father... (regarding reports of visitation;
plans for visitation);"
- I don't want to hear about... (what you did with your father) (especially
if it was fun);
Refusal to allow the target parent physically near:
- When the target parent calls, gives the phone to the child, "It's
him," in a disgusted tone of voice.
- Hangs up phone on the target parent;
- Silently hands the phone to the child when its the target parent calling.
Doing and undoing statements: Negative comments about the other parent
made and then denied:
- Target parent not allowed out of the car or even on the property, in
the driveway, for pick-up and drop-off visitations;
- "There are things I could tell you about your Dad, but I'm not
that kind of person."
- "Your Dad is an alcoholic; oh, I shouldn't have said that."
Destruction of memorabilia of the target person.
- "Your Dad wasn't around a lot when you were little."
- "Your Dad abandoned me."
At this stage alienation continues to occur more frequently during transitional
times, but is present in other circumstances. With moderate forms of alienation,
all three divorce impasse systems are involved. The alienating parent is
facing an internal conflict; the alienating parent is interacting with
the spouse in a manner designed to produce conflict; and the external forces,
such as therapists, attorneys and the court, are involved in the polarization,
at least to some degree.
When the alienation is overt, the motivation to alienate (the intense
hatred of the other) is blatant. The alienating parent is obsessed and
sees the target as noxious to himself or herself, the children, and even
the world. A history of the marriage is related which reflects nothing
but the bad times. The target parent was never worthwhile as a spouse or
a parent and is not worthwhile today. Such a parent shows little response
to logic, and little ability to confront reality.
Many alienating parents at this stage entertain the overt belief that
the target parent presents an actual danger of harm to the children. They
present this belief as concrete knowledge that if the children spend time
with the target parent they will be irreparably harmed in some manner or
that they will be brainwashed by the target parent not to value/love the
- Statements about the target parent are delusional or false:
- "Your Mom doesn't pay support" when there is evidence to
- "Your father doesn't love us" (or "you") when there
is no evidence to that effect.
- "Your mother drinks too much," "uses drugs," "smokes,"
etc. when there is no evidence to support these statements.,
- "Your father went out and got the meanest lawyer in town;"
- Inclusion of the children as victims of the target parent's bad behavior:
Overt criticism of the target parent:
- "Your Mom abandoned us";
- "Your Dad doesn't love us (or you) anymore;"
The children are required to keep secrets from the target parent:
- "Your Mom is a drug addict/alcoholic/violent person..."
- "What's wrong with your Dad; he never/always does..."
- "Your mother endangers your health,"
- "Your father doesn't take good care of you/doesn't feed you/take
you to the doctor/understand you during visits."
Threat of withdrawal of love:
- "Don't tell your Mom where you've been/ who you've seen/ where
you are going/ etc."
Extreme lack of courtesy to the target parent.
- "I won't love you if you... (see your Dad, etc.)"
- "I'm the only one who really loves you."
At this stage of alienation, conscious motivation is always present,
and the internal, interactional and external systems are fully engaged
in supporting the alienation process.
By the severe stage, the alienating parent no longer needs to be active.
In terms of the motivation, the alienating parent holds no value at all
for the other parent (whether motivated by fears, emptiness, helplessness)
and the hatred and disdain are completely overt. The alienating parent
will do anything to keep the children away from the target parent.
At this stage the child is so enmeshed with the alienating parent that
he or she agrees totally that the target parent is a villain and the scum
of the earth. The child takes on the alienating parent's desires, emotions
and hatreds and verbalizes them to all as his own. The child too sees the
history of the target parent and family as all negative and is able to
neither remember nor express any positive feeling for the target parent.
These, and overt cases of the previous paragraph, are the ones that
as an attorney invade your private life and lead to emotional over-involvement,
although any high conflict alienation case beginning in the moderate category
can do so.
VI. Intervention in Alienation Systems
In the ideal cooperative divorce, there is little or no alienation occurring.
Parents recognize the difference between their own needs and the needs
of their children. They fully believe that their children have needed both
parents throughout the marriage and will continue to need them after the
divorce. Each parent values the role that the other parent can play in
the lives of the children and the different interests and talents the other
has to offer the children. There is no motivation for alienation because
of the value attributed to the other parent.
This ideal is infrequently realized in real life because divorce is
such an intense change of role, life stage and life style for almost all
who go through it. Participants need as much education, support and information
as possible to help mitigate the harms that result from high conflict divorce.
Certain counties, court systems and other governmental entities7
are requiring all parents of children involved in a divorce to attend an
educational program designed to help them understand the impact of the
divorce process on themselves and their children and to recognize the value
to children of having both parents involved. The parents are educated as
to the typical stages in divorce and child development and the impact they
can anticipate their divorce having on their children. The studies of the
long term effects of divorce and the usual problems that occur are discussed.
These programs are designed to be preventative of the kinds of problems
that commonly arise when parents do not understand the psychological and
emotional consequences their divorce has upon themselves and their children.
Other states require mandatory mediation prior to a court trial as a
way of avoiding litigation. Mediation advocates believe that mediation
is more successful than the courts at avoiding future litigation 8.
While there have been no studies as to the effectiveness of these programs
in preventing or ameliorating alienation, in one such program the participants
themselves have reported great satisfaction with the program and have recommended
that it be expanded 9.
Attorneys and therapists are the front line professionals in most custody
battles. They, too, have an obligation to educate their clients that divorce
involves anger, rage, upset, distress, loyalty binds, and kids and parents
who manipulate each other in crisis. The clients must be helped to understand
the normality of these themes and to learn the strategies for controlling
them and outgrowing them. Alternatives to intense battles must be explored.
It is the duty of the attorney to advocate for her client. Good representation
will include assessing the family system clearly from the client's point
of view, and to advocate for that client's interests zealously. However,
we believe that such zealous advocacy must occur in the context of the
client's long term interests as a member of a restructuring family system.
Whatever the outcome of the immediate litigation, the client will remain
in the family system with contact and relationship with all other members
of the family system for the rest of his or her life. Long after the lawyers
are gone, the client will live with the effects of the positions taken
and the statements made in litigation. The client may later regret the
vitriol and the permanency of the damage done by a high conflict divorce.
It is the attorney's job to help the client through the immediacy of
the pain and the rage and to help the client see the long term view of
involved family relations.
Attorneys must also be acutely cognizant of the divorce impasse system
itself and the important part they play in it. Maligning the other spouse,
requiring the client to have no further contact with the spouse, prohibiting
any temporary agreements or a temporary separation can interfere with a
real resolution of the conflict. Zealous advocacy is a poor excuse for
actually damaging a client's long term familial relations.
Alienation cases present the greatest difficulty for attorneys. In the
advocacy role, an attorney is bound to allow the client to define the goal
of the representation and to advance that position zealously 10.
An attorney is also bound not to bring or defend frivolous actions 11.
We believe that actions harmful to children could fall under that prohibition
If alienation is in progress, accepting at face value all derogatory
comments about the opposing party will ill serve both the client and the
attorney, as the client's judgment is emotionally tainted. It is incumbent
on the attorney to sufficiently explore with the client his motivation
and the reality basis of his beliefs before litigation is undertaken. Careful
and thoughtful exploration with the client about the good times in the
marriage and the positive parenting traits of the other side will give
the attorney much information about both parties, and will tell the attorney
just how balanced a view the client holds.
We believe that under no circumstances should an attorney encourage
a client to gain information about the opposing party from a child. Nor
should an attorney interview a child even if the child is unrepresented
13. The willingness of a client to directly involve
a child in the litigation should be a red flag that the parent may well
be using a child to further her own agenda, even if the child is apparently
It is crucial to note, however, that we are describing cases where alienation
exists, and other forms of abuse, such as physical or sexual abuse, do
not. If abuse is honestly suspected, safety of the spouse or children becomes
paramount and full evaluation by a competent professional is a necessity.
Courts must recognize the initial seeds of alienation and seek information
about family structure to examine the degree of risk in the family: Are
the adults using or manipulating the children in furtherance of their own
emotional needs? Are the children vulnerable to alienation?
All children can be enlisted into the battle, but, generally speaking,
the children who are most vulnerable may be overly dependent, fearful and
passive. These children may express guilt feelings about their parents'
divorce, identify with or play the rescuer of the alienating parent, assume
caretaking roles of a parent, and/or feel conditionally loved. The more
vulnerable children pick up and resonate with the parental feelings. Generally,
the children will have little insight into their situation.
The factors that identify families where alienation is less likely are:
abundant positive contact between both parents and the children; sibling
groups who all have good relations with both parents; good relations of
the children with family and friends of both parents; free communication
to the child by others of the good qualities of both parents; lack of defensiveness
on the part of each parent as to the emotions, statements and criticisms
of the other; ability of each parent to discuss schedules and parenting
concerns with the other parent; ability of each parent to accommodate the
schedules and desires of the other.
Many high conflict families view the court as determining not only custody
and visitation, but also making judgments about the right and wrong, good
and bad parenting. Court is seen as a place where one person is judged
to be fit, and the other unfit. The court can help ameliorate this unfortunate
scenario by making explicit the legal and pragmatic grounds for a decision.
If appropriate, the court can declare neutrality on personal and moral
issues that do not expose a child to harm. Compassionate communication
that does not further the anger, loss, shame and humiliation in this public
forum can be immensely healing.
2. Mild Alienation Cases
Once an alienation process has been identified, the court must intervene.
Even at the mild or beginning stages there is much work to be done. There
is usually a healthy psychological bond between each of the parents and
the child and at least a cognitive recognition on the part of the alienating
parent that an estrangement between the child and the target parent is
not in the best interests of the child. The alienating parent is frequently
willing to participate in a program to change the direction of the case,
if given the information and the guidance necessary.
Often the alienation at this stage is motivated by fear that the impending
divorce will cause the child to love the alienating parent less. The finalization
of the divorce itself together with specific education and the therapy
described below may ameliorate the situation.
At the mild stage, it is imperative that the family be engaged in a
"family systems" therapy that is focused on changing the behavior
of the parties around the child. The traditional individual therapies are
not helpful as individual treatment tends to focus on only one side, therefore
potentially increasing the alienation by advocacy for a client. If individual
therapy is necessary for a child or a parent, it must take place with a
therapist who understands the alienation process and who supports the value
to a child of having a relationship with each parent. Family systems work
may need to include the child at some or all sessions.
All therapists engaged with the family must understand family dynamics
and parental alienation, have a systems approach and clearly understand
that children need two parents. The therapists must be strong and forceful
and able to utilize the force of the court through the Guardian ad Litem.
The therapy must be directed at the resolution of the divorce impasse.
The Court ordered divorce impasse therapy must include all the adults
directly involved in the custody of the child. This includes both parents
and any live-in lovers or current spouses and any other adult who lives
in the home of either the alienating parent or the target parent and any
other adult who may be involved in the alienation. A court order may be
necessary to require the warring adults to sit in the same room together,
but we believe that they must actually face each other if possible, or,
at a minimum, be involved with the same systems therapist if meeting together
is not recommended.
The Court order must be forceful and explicit. The rights, responsibilities
and duties of each parent must be spelled out explicitly. Attendance in
therapy as required by the therapist must be court ordered. The custody
and visitation schedule may also need to be explicit, with details of how,
when and where pick-ups and drop-offs are to occur. All parties must understand
that a court order cannot be modified unless approved by the court; if
modifications can be made by the family with the agreement of the systems
therapist, this must be made explicit in the order.
Confidentiality will always be an issue which should be addressed by
the court, the parties, lawyers and the therapist. If the parties are able
to agree to confidentiality, it should be written into the court order.
If the therapy is confidential, it should be confidential to all, including
the court and the guardian ad Litem. The ability of the parties to agree
to confidentiality would be a major step to resolution as it indicates
both motivation and trust of the system.
If the parties cannot agree to confidentiality, the court should do
what it can to insulate the therapist from legal inquiry, with due regard
for the parties constitutional rights.14 The court can order the attorneys
not to speak with the therapist (except for the Guardian ad Litem) during
the therapeutic process, order complete confidentiality for the therapist's
working notes; delay all depositions until further court order, or otherwise
limit the therapist's involvement in the litigation process.
There must be a mechanism for enforcement of the court order. The court
should appoint a Guardian ad Litem who will have the authority, independent
of further court order, to require a complete family system evaluation
if the above treatment is not successful. The order at this stage should
include the mechanism for the payment of both the Guardian ad Litem and
the court ordered evaluation.
The order should also contemplate the need for rapid and complete intervention,
should the parties fail to ameliorate the situation. We suggest that the
court schedule a review hearing at the time it issues the therapy order,
and allow only the Guardian ad Litem to cancel it.
We are hopeful that, in most cases, the court ordered expensive evaluation
will be sufficient sanction to motivate the parents to genuinely participate
in treatment, but the parties must be made to feel the strength of the
court behind the court order. Sanctions for failure to comply must be explicit.
We urge the court to spell out the next stage of intervention (described
below) and include an explanation of what sanctions to expect at a future
date, if necessary.
Intervention for moderate alienation cannot be only the educational
and counseling intervention described for mild alienation. Education cannot
be successful because the alienation at this level is not a rational process
and reason alone will not change irrational behavior. At this level the
alienating parent's individual internal difficulties have become so intense
that insight and judgment as to the target parent is impaired. Further,
the alienating parent's interactions with and about the target parent are
based not on observed behavior but on inner fears and serve to reaffirm
the belief that the target parent is bad. Additionally, external forces
(individual therapists, attorneys, extended family) have become polarized
on behalf of one party and serve to perpetuate the alienation.
We believe that the family system must be thoroughly evaluated by a
professional or a team of professionals competent in the "family systems"
approach. The evaluation must be of the entire system, including all adults
directly involved in the life of the child, as described above. The evaluation
must be generated by a single source or team; multiple individual psychological
evaluations will not be able to advise the court as to the interrelational
issues that are affecting the functioning of the family.
The purpose of the evaluation is to 1.) identify the specific motivations
and behaviors that are causing the divorce impasse or subsequent alienation;
2.) to assess whether or not individual therapy might be beneficial for
any party to help resolve intrapsychic issues; and 3.) to develop a complete
behavioral plan to intervene in the alienation process.
The behavioral assessment must be very specific as to the motivations
for the impasse behaviors that are causing the alienation, and the changes
necessary to alter the system. Once the behaviors and beliefs are identified,
the evaluator can make recommendations as to specific behavioral measures
to counter the alienation. The recommendations must be sufficiently detailed
and specific to be quantifiable.
We wish to emphasize here that individual psychological evaluations
and therapies, or "talking" group or family therapies are of
minimal value in these situations, as they may only serve to perpetuate
the alienation process. The goal of appropriate treatment is not only to
gain understanding of the divorce impasse but also to behaviorally reduce
or eliminate alienation within the system. In order to intervene in alienation,
behavior and group dynamics must be modified.
We suggest the Individual Educational Plan (the IEP) as a model. 15
The Recommendations must be as specific and goal oriented as the IEP, and
compliance must be targeted in much the same manner 16.
Compliance should be approximately 70% compliance the first two months;
80% the third or fourth month; 90% the fifth month and thereafter.
- The child will see Target Parent X times per week without parental
conflict at times of transition;
- The child will telephone Target Parent X times per week and talk about
positive things for a minute or two; (depending on the age of the child);
(depending upon whether telephone calls to a hostile environment would
be beneficial or not to the child);
- During the visit, the Alienating Parent may call only "x"
number of times (or may not call at all);
- The child will send Target Parent a picture or painting in the mail
once per week, with a positive note attached;
- The child will bring home from visits a project done or a note to Alienating
Parent about what was enjoyed during each visit.
- The Target Parent will provide a photograph of himself to the child,
and the Alienating Parent shall encourage the child to display it.
Essentially, what the evaluators must do is to understand the impasse,
address it directly and compassionately. Clearly, this plan will work best
if the internal and the interactional issues which created the divorce
impasse are concurrently addressed and alleviated. At the same time the
court must mandate the occurrence of specific behaviors that counteract
the battle forces. The court must make the parents demonstrate that they
can follow a plan whose ultimate goal is the mutuality of interest, even
if they don't feel it. It is our position that the alienating parent must
become the welcoming parent in deed if not in thought.
Finally, the plan must cover a specific and lengthy period of time during
which behavioral requirements of the parties and the child are explicitly
laid out. This will provide the parties sufficient predictability to calm
the system down and to allow every one in it to get used to the idea that
different relationships between the members are going to be established
in a predictable manner. We suggest that the plan cover approximately six
months with an automatic court review at that time.
Procedurally, we suggest that the Guardian ad Litem be authorized at
the first stage of intervention, as noted above, to require the evaluation,
and that the Guardian's request have the force of the court behind it.
When the evaluation is commenced, the Guardian ad Litem simultaneously
should request the Court to schedule a hearing to be held before the Court
when the evaluation is complete. At the hearing, all parties could present
to the court proposed remedial measures; the Guardian ad Litem would present
the evaluator's report and recommendations which will likely include individual
therapy to address the impasse and an IEP-like behavioral management program.
The Court should then issue a detailed, quantifiable, specific order with
sanctions enumerated, as to the behavioral changes necessary to ameliorate
the alienation and order the parties into therapy, if recommended.
There will be no confidentiality by the time a family is in this stage
of alienation and need for intervention. The court needs to be able to
monitor the progress of the family through the behavior management therapy.
The behavior management therapist will need to be able to communicate with
any individual therapists involved with family members so that there is
a full and complete exchange of information and no family secrets.
Creative sanctions must stand behind the court order as compliance at
this stage will be motivated only by fear. The ultimate sanction is a change
of custody, but there are many others we could suggest. The legal system
has traditionally used fines and loss of liberty as punishment for failure
to comply with court orders. Certainly, these are sanctions that could
be used in these cases, but they may harm or confuse the children as much
as the contemnor. Obviously, an award of attorney's fees, the threat of
attorney's fees, the threat of weekend jail time may be a useful sanction.
Threats of transferring or assigning responsibility for the Guardian ad
Litem's fees, the cost of the evaluation, the costs of the child's therapy
or even therapy for the other parent can all be used to motivate compliance
in this early stage of intervention, subject always to the best interests
of the child.
We also suggest that the court could shift both time (expand visitation
or award cherished holidays and birthdays to the complying parent) and
function (assign areas of traditionally joint parental authority such as
medical care, education) in favor of the target parent, both as appropriate
sanctions, and as possible preparation for the ultimate sanction, a change
The careful monitoring of such a detailed court order is an essential
piece of this intervention, and we suggest that there be a monitoring team
to do it. The Guardian ad Litem and a therapist, most likely the evaluator
or the original post-divorce counsellor, should work together monitoring
compliance. Such monitoring perforce will be largely through reports of
the principles involved, the parents and the child, but can also be done
by teachers, individual therapists, friends, etc. through reports to the
Guardian ad Litem. For instance, teachers can be asked to report on the
emotional condition of a child before and after visits and to report on
any information the child offers in school. A child can be asked where
he keeps the photograph of the Target Parent (as an indicator of the degree
of comfort the child has in the display in the allegedly hostile environment).
A team is necessary to lessen the danger of the professionals becoming
caught into the polarization in the family system. In extreme cases the
monitoring team may even want to have a third consultant monitor available
to them to oversee the case as a more distant figure, not caught up in
the everyday details these kinds of cases chronically present. A consultant
monitor could stay aloof of the various warring factions.
If the parties fail to comply with the court orders there needs to be
swift access to the courts and a second look at the custody situation.
4. The Parent Evaluation
If the above described interventions fail and the child remains virtually
without relationship to the target parent a different level of intervention
is warranted. If the alienating behavior continues despite the education,
the post divorce counseling, impasse resolution therapy, and the specific
behavior management intervention, one can conclude as a matter of established
fact that the alienating parent does not have the capacity to foster a
relationship with the other parent.
There is a considerable body of research which specifically examines
the effects on children of single parent homes. A full review of this literature
is beyond the scope of this paper, but, in general, the evidence is overwhelming
that in father-absent homes, boys have lower self esteem, are more likely
to be rejected by peers and may experience deficits in cognitive functioning.
Girls may be less affected than boys in father-absent homes, but the research
does show negative effects on girls' social and cognitive development.
There is an additional body of research on reactions of children to
high conflict divorce. 18 Children who experience high
degrees of conflict between parents during divorce show more emotional
difficulty than those whose parents are able to better resolve their difficulties.
Children whose parents are in conflict "are more likely to feel caught,
and children who feel caught are more likely to experience depression,
anxiety, and, to a lesser degree, participate in deviant behavior."
The deliberate alienation by one parent of the other, unmodified by
the numerous interventions described above, is psychologically harmful
to the child.
"It is important...to appreciate that a parent who inculcates a
parental alienation syndrome in a child is indeed perpetrating a from of
emotional abuse in that such programming may not only produce lifelong
alienation from a loving parent, but lifelong psychiatric disturbance in
the child." 5
A change of custody must be contemplated under the best interests standard
as the Perrault20 standard of a "strong possibility
of harm" has been met.
The court must determine what custody location would be the most beneficial
to the child, although in many of these cases the courts actually have
to decide which placement is the least damaging to the child. A comparative
determination of the custodial capacity of each parent must be done. The
court or the parties may well have sufficient information at this point
to litigate the issue of the best interests of the child. If not, parenting
evaluations become crucial.
Knowing that the alienating parent does not have the ability to foster
a relationship between the child and the target parent, the issue before
the court will be, does the target parent offer the child sufficient parenting
capacity to outweigh that very serious harm. We believe that, because of
the very nature of the harm to the child from the lack of a relationship
with the target parent, the court must determine whether the target parent
has adequate parenting capacity. 21
If the target parent shows a parenting ability that is adequate as defined
in the research and fits the needs of the child and there is a reasonable
likelihood that the target parent will foster the relationship of the child
with the alienating parent, the court should seriously consider modifying
custody, unless the child is so enmeshed with the alienating parent that
a change in custody would be permanently harmful to the child. If the target
parent is not adequate, it becomes incumbent on the court to see if there
are other family members or foster care available to take the child, someone
to help the child create and maintain a relationship with each of his parents.
5. Severe: The Fully Enmeshed Child
If the alienation is allowed to progress and the child has few resources
with which to resist the influence of the alienating parent, the child
may become fully "enmeshed" with the alienating parent. It is
estimated that very few children suffer this harm (between 1% and 5% of
alienation cases22) but there are those situations
where it is impossible to encourage or even force a child to be with the
target parent. These children have only extremely hostile feelings for
the target parent, and no amount of evidence disproving their stated reasons
for their hatred will serve to dissuade them. Enmeshed children have incorporated
the alienating parent's hatreds, emotions and desires with regard to the
target parent, such that it is often difficult to discern who is expressing
In some of these cases, the enmeshment is so complete that it would
cause the child to suffer an emotional breakdown of devastating proportions
if custody were awarded to the hated target parent. In these cases, the
child's sense of self is totally dependent on the relationship of the alienating
parent, and a loss of that relationship would mean destruction of the self.
Certainly, attempts to switch custody would be fought against and undermined
by the child: tactics would include runaways; reports by the child of physical/sexual
abuse by the hated parent; reports by the child of self destructive behaviors
such as drug abuse, suicide attempts; refusal to participate in school;
In these rare cases, the child must stay with the alienating parent,
as it is not proper to use a child to punish a parent for misbehavior
23. For whatever solace it is, the target parent must
be assured that at some point children do seek out the other parent, and
the relationship is not lost forever.
When there is no relationship allowed or allowable between the target
parent and the enmeshed child, some courts have suspended a target parent's
child support or allowed the target parent to escrow child support so that
the target parent does not have to provide financial assistance to the
household that hates him so profoundly. However, even this sanction must
be used cautiously as the detriment may be experienced by the child, not
the alienating parent.
"Weapons" are the false allegations by the alienating parent
of behavior on the part of the target parent inimicable to the welfare
of the child. The most commonly used weapons are false allegations of:
- threats of or actual domestic violence;
- sexual abuse of the child;
- physical abuse of the child;
- emotional abuse of the child;
- mental illness on the part of the target parent;
- alcoholism/drug abuse/homosexuality on the part of the target parent;
or threats of:
- moving or flight by the alienating parent.
Even when such an allegation is made in the context of high conflict
litigation, it must be taken very seriously on its face and fully investigated
to determine its validity. Each allegation accuses the target parent of
behavior harmful to the child. Safety of the child is paramount. Neither
the courts, the lawyers, the therapists or, perhaps, the parents, want
to risk the welfare of the child when there is a possibility that the accusations
might be true.
By their very nature, the allegations shift the emphasis of investigation
onto the accused, the target parent. Several of the accusations are of
very private behavior, in the home only, which behaviors are difficult
to prove and/or disprove.
Most domestic violence remains invisible despite the increase in awareness
of the problem. Under New Hampshire procedures outlined in NH RSA 173-B,
a complaint of domestic violence taken to court together with a request
for exclusive custody can give the complainant a considerable advantage
in the legal system.
Custody can be gained in an ex-parte proceeding. A sworn claim of violence
or the threat of violence is all that is needed. Extrinsic proof of danger
or harm is rarely requested, and Judges make no inquiry whatsoever into
the nature of prevailing custodial arrangements. In most cases, the procedures
are appropriate and the protection given critical to the life and safety
of domestic violence victims and their children. In rare cases, the procedures
afforded to domestic violence victims are manipulated to gain advantage
in custody cases without being grounded in real fear of physical violence.
Attorneys are bound by their own ethical rules not to knowingly mislead
a tribunal 24. It is highly questionable practice to
refer clients who have not suffered domestic violence or the serious threat
of it to court for the quick relief afforded such victims under NH RSA
173-B, although the New Hampshire District Court Judges report an increasing
number of such custody cases 25. Advising a client
to gain a tactical advantage by using the emergency procedures afforded
under NH RSA 173-B may violate the Code of Professional Conduct even if
the attorney is not involved in the presentation of the case to the court.
Allegations of abuse of a child (physical and/or sexual) may be fabricated
but may also be absolutely accurate; in all instances, but especially in
the context of a custody battle, such allegations need to be dealt with
immediately by a competent professional who fully understands: (1) sexual
and/or physical abuse of children; (2) family systems; (3) divorce and
custody litigation and the impact of lawyers and the legal system.
Sexuality triggers intense feelings in all listeners, and fear and panic
may, at times, obscure reason. Some litigants have learned to use to their
advantage the irrationality that can attend allegations of sexual abuse.
We caution all involved: get professional intervention immediately with
a coordinated, systemic evaluation of both the allegations of sexual abuse
and the family system that has produced the allegation.
Allegations of physical abuse are not used often in the context of custody
litigation, perhaps because physical abuse is usually easier to detect
than sexual abuse, making it easier to prove or disprove. When the allegations
are made and sufficiently established to cause concern in the Superior
Court, the court or the parties involved must refer the case to the Division
for Children and Youth Services under NH RSA 169-C.
If it is unclear that there is in fact abuse (sexual or physical), then
the allegations may have been produced by the intensity of feelings about
the divorce, the fear of abuse and a misreading of a particular situation.
However, the failure to disprove the allegations will paralyze the system
to the advantage of the alienating parent because the emphasis of the Court
and the professionals must be on the protection and safety of the child.
Unless disproved, these suspicious allegations cast a pall of potential
harm to the child that no one person, institution or agency will have courage
enough to ignore.
We believe that it is important to establish a baseline of facts upon
which all persons involved in the divorce impasse system, family and professionals
alike, can rely for future decisions regarding visitation and custody.
Because of the emotionally charged atmosphere sexual and physical abuse
charges generate, we believe that no one person should be responsible for
establishing those facts. Therefore, we suggest that advisory juries be
empaneled to aid the judge in his findings regarding the allegations of
abuse. NH RSA 519:23; NH RSA 491:16 26. Unless this
is done and reliable facts are established in these cases, an accused will
always be treated as guilty unless proven innocent with regards to contact
with the children.
Accusations of alcoholism, mental illness or homosexuality also place
a burden on the target parent to prove fitness to be with the child, but
these factors are less potent in most custody litigation today than they
used to be. It is easier to prove or disprove alcohol or drug abuse or
mental illness as the behavior is not necessarily private. These accusations
also do not directly implicate parenting capacity in the same way allegations
of physical or sexual violence do, and the courts are routinely requiring
that litigants prove a nexus between the alleged behavior and harm to the
Another weapon is the threat of moving, or the actual flight of the
alienating parent. The court must immediately look to the motive, spoken
or unspoken, for the move; if the motivation is to keep the target parent
away, this is a clear red flag that the alienating parent will stop at
nothing to achieve an exclusive relationship with the child.
No matter when a "weapon" shows up in the course of the litigation,
the fact of its allegation must lead directly to a full systems evaluation
by a qualified, competent professional. It serves as an indication that
the alienating parent knows no bounds and that education, information and
behavior management will be insufficient interventions. The courts must
look to the long term best interests of the child in terms of custody because
the alienation process will continue. The use of a weapon should catalyze
the system to the evaluation of the custodial capacities of each parent.
An expert must look at the entire system, assess the truth and relevance
of the allegations, the motivation for the allegations, assess the safety
and welfare of the child and make recommendations as to the best placement
and visitation arrangements for the child.
A partnership of judges, attorneys, and mental health professionals
is critical in the resolution of high conflict alienation cases. A judge
has the power to order changes but is not readily available. Lawyers are
more available, but do not necessarily have proper understandings. As advocates,
they can easily become part of a divorce impasse system, aggravating an
already inflamed system. Mental health professionals must have a systems
understanding and usually are available, but do not have the power of the
court, nor the legal understandings of the attorney. A partnership is essential.
Attorneys must help clients discern long term interests regarding children,
the meanings behind a custody battle (hurt, revenge, fears) and ensuing
alienation. Attorneys must offer education about the importance of co-parenting
and moving beyond the battleground. Attorneys must treat with caution and
trepidation a client who sees a divorcing spouse as all bad and must avoid
joining with the client in further escalating this belief. Attorneys must
refer to mental health professionals trained in family systems, those who
need someone who will work for the best interest of the whole family. Attorneys
must recognize when they have been enlisted as active parties in the polarization
alienation conflict, and seek consultation so as not to further escalate
Courts must act decisively and explicitly in cases of high conflict
divorce and alienation. Orders must be pragmatic and the grounds for decisions
must be explained in terms that make it less likely that one party can
claim a moral victory and the other feel shame of defeat. Courts must use
their knowledge and power to understand the family system, to recognize
high conflict alienation cases, and to make appropriate, timely and specific
referrals and recommendations. By recognizing alienation in its early forms,
prevention of future harm to the child and family may well be possible.
Intervention, at any point along the continuum of harm is crucial to prevent
Peggie Ward, Ph.D.
J. Campbell Harvey, J.D.
Slatoff & Ward Psychological Professional Association
280 Main Street #310
Nashua, NH 03060
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- Most of the research to date has shown that the mother
is significantly more likely to be the alienating parent and the father
the target parent. However, we note that there is a fair amount of controversy
in the field regarding the conclusion that more mothers alienate than fathers,
and wish to emphasize that in many cases we personally have seen, it is
the father who alienates and the mother who is the target.
- See, Lamb, M.E.(ed.) In Non-Traditional Families,
"Effects of Divorce on Parents & Children" by Hetherington,
E.M.; Cox, M.; Cox, R. (1982). See also, Wallerstein, J. & Kelly, J.S.,
Surviving the Breakup: How children and Parents Cope with Divorce, (1980);
J. Wallerstein & S. Blakeslee, Second Chances: Men, Women and Children
a Decade after Divorce: Who Wins, Loses and Why (1989)
- Johnston, J.R. & Campbell, L.E.G., Impasses of Divorce "Forward"
by J. Wallerstein, p.ix (1988)
- Hodges, William F. Interventions for Children of
Divorce at 151 (1986).
- Gardner, Richard, The Parental Alienation Syndrome
- Johnston, Impasses of Divorce see Endnote #2.
- "Families First" is a program currently
mandated in several cities/counties in Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Texas,
Illinois, Michigan, and Louisiana, among other states.
- California (The Family Act, Sec. 4607, The Civil
Code), Maine (19 Maine Revised Statutes 214.4), North Carolina (7A North
Carolina Revised Statutes 494) and Wisconsin (767.001 Wisconsin Revised
Statutes) require mediation for custody cases.
- Zirps, Fotena A., Ph.D. Children Cope with Divorce
-- Follow-up Study, Cobb County, Families First, Atlanta, Georgia, (1992).
- Code of Professional Conduct Rule 2.1.
- Code of Professional Conduct Rule 3.1.
American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Standards of Conduct Rule
2.25 An attorney should not contest child custody or visitation for
either financial leverage or vindictiveness. Comment: ..."Proper consideration
of the welfare of the children requires that they not be used as pawns
in the adversary process. If despite the attorney's advice the client persists,
the attorney should seek to withdraw."
Rule 2.27 An attorney should refuse to assist in vindictive conduct
toward a spouse or third party and should not do anything to increase the
emotional level of the dispute. Comment: ..."If...the client...asks
the attorney to engage in conduct the attorney believes to be imprudent
or repugnant, the attorney should attempt to convince the client to work
toward family harmony or in the interests of the children. Conduct in the
interests of the children or the family will almost always be in the client's
long term interests."
- American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Standards
of Conduct Rule 2.24 When issues in a representation affect the
welfare of a child, an attorney should not initiate communication with
the child, except in the presence of the child's lawyer or guardian ad
litem. with court permission, or as necessary to verify facts in motions
- Ross v. Gadwah, 131 N.H. 391 (1988).
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20
U.S.C. S 1400 et seq.
- See N.H. Standards for the Education of Handicap
Students, Chapt. Ed. S 1109 (1988)
- Hodges, see Endnote #4. There is not enough research on mother absence to reach conclusions at this point
in time as the frequency of mother absence is so low that obtaining generalizable
samples is virtually impossible.
- Wallerstein, Second Chances, see Endnote #2.
- Buchanan, C. & Maccoby, E., "Variation
in Adjustment to Divorce: The role of feeling caught between Parents"
April 1991, Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting for the Society for
Research in Child Development, Seattle Washington, April 18-20, 1991.
- Perreault v. Cook, 114 N.H. 440 (1974); Howard v.
Howard, 124 N.H. 267 (1983).
- There is substantial research on adequate or "good-enough" parenting: Hodges, see Endnote #3; Shutz, B.M., Dixon, E.B., Lindenbergen, J.C., Ruther, N.J., Solomon's Sword (1989)
- Clawar & Rivlin, Page 142.
- Webb v. Knudson, 133 NH 665, 673 (1990). "Children are not chargeable with the misconduct of their parents and should not
be uprooted from their home in order to discipline a recalcitrant parent."
See also, Houde v. Beckmeyer, 116 NH 719 (1976).
- Code of Professional Conduct Rule 3.3 A lawyer shall not knowingly mislead the court or use illegal or false evidence.
- Domestic Violence Training for District Court Judges,
January, 1990, personal conversation.
- This suggestion has been made by Judge Linda Dalianis
of the New Hampshire Superior Court. See, Bonser v. Courtney, 124 N.H.
796 (1984) Only a Judge, not a Marital Master, could empanel an advisory