Parental Alienation: Causes and Possible Solutions

Dealing with our particular Alienating Parent (AP) for so many years, we have come across all of the following aspects of Parental Alienation.

“The Family System

The PAS is a family system defense mechanism. The function of the defense is not always obvious, but there is often a subtle underlying complicity on the part of the family members in the drama. The research provides clues to some defense functions:

  • to protect the AP’s self-esteem (for example, when PAS escalates as the TP [Targeted Parent] becomes more “successful” after the separation, including getting on with life and remarriage);

  • to help the AP cope with his or her difficulty “letting go” of the marriage (for example, when the AP can’t stop thinking about or talking about the other parent; or when PAS escalates around birthdays, holidays, vacations, etc.);

  • to maintain the AP’s symbiotic dependence on the child (for example, when the AP calls the child every day when he or she is with the TP–one of the authors had a case in which the AP would tell the child that she “couldn’t stand to go into your room while you were away, it makes me so sad”);

  • to deal with anger and revenge (for example, when the AP expresses moral outrage at the exposure of the child to a new romantic partner, when the real issue is anger for an affair, or simply at being so easily replaced);

  • to help the AP through what he or she perceives to be a “grown up” version of a childhood experience; and

  • to help the family cope with the AP’s tendency to turn on the child or anyone else who disagrees, or to abandon the child if there is a change (the child fears having feelings independent of and in opposition to the AP and becoming a target of the rage and rejection he or she has seen the AP direct at others who disagree).”

Some helpful suggestions that we read in this same article are:


Once the evaluation is complete, the mental health professional and the attorneys involved must collaborate on a plan. Each plays an important role in this process. This should be an open process, since the process itself models for the family a healthy problem-solving approach. The intervention plan must be based on the factors in the individual case, though in all cases there will be some similarities in approach, including but not limited to the following steps:

  1. Establishing the benefits of ongoing contact between the children and the TP. Some of these are inherent in the parent/child relationship. Others may be family specific (e.g., “My father may be more willing to contribute to my college expenses if he has ongoing contact with me”). With all family members contributing to the process of identifying the benefits of contact, they begin to incorporate a family culture of valuing the contact rather than disputing it. The family also needs to identify any drawbacks to contact between the child and the TP, but these ought to be reframed as obstacles to be overcome rather than as reasons for elimination.

  2. 2. Establishing structure around the contact. This may include behavioral contracts regarding concerns and problematic behavior. Frequent telephone calls by the AP to the child, for example, may prevent the child from having an independent experience with the TP. Contracting to a certain number of calls at certain times may reduce the anxiety. If the TP makes bothersome statements to the child, contracting can include limiting these. The structure, particularly initially when the system is fragile, must have a reliable system of reporting and enforcement.

  3. 3. Avoiding the use of placement as a corrective tool. In most cases, the child’s relationship with the AP is important. In many instances, the AP has played the role of primary caregiver, and the threat of breaking that attachment may drive the destruction deeper into the family system. However, frequent contact with the TP provides counterbalancing influences to the PAS process and may also provide the child reliable contact with other people (for example, grandparents) who are respected by and important to the child. If necessary, therefore, placement may be a tool to provide corrective experiences for the child.

  4. Encouraging the TP to have expert counseling in approaching the child with sensitivity, cool patience, and loving persistence. The TP, often the weak link in the destructive system, may be required to provide delicate explanations of the situation to the child without denigrating the AP. Drawing the TP out of the family process first provides the child with some sense of relief from the pressures.

  5. Eliciting some permission, even if insincere, from the AP for the child to love and be involved with the TP. If the AP is on record as giving such permission, the child may have the courage to progress. This may also provide some reassurance to the child at times, in that others can point out that while the AP may in part be reluctant, there is at least some wish for the relationship between the child and the TP to be successful.

  6. Having an outside professional take a strong role in protecting the child by giving a powerful message that the TP is nor a bad person, directly opposing the message of the AP. This must fit the real experiences of the child, however. If the TP has misbehaved, this should not be ignored or glossed over.

  7. Conveying a clear, strong message to the family that the alienation process is harmful to the child. In some instances, it may be wise to identify PAS as a form of psychological abuse and to indicate that the courts will not tolerate its continuance. Not all cases require a court order; in some, this may be counterproductive or an exercise in futility. Some cases absolutely cannot proceed without the external authority of the court order, but only if the court is willing to enforce. The judge or family court commissioner, therefore, must be included in the collaborative assessment of the family and the recommended plan of intervention.

  8. Developing a clear picture of the benefits to the child in maintaining contact with the TP. These include both the general benefits (e.g., the biological needs of the child for the parent; benefits to the identification process; maintaining a reality foundation for the child’s fears [no contact will almost always lead to an irrational increase in the fear level, and the fantasies about the TP almost always become irrational]; and prevention of the loss of a love object [which most often leads to self-resentment by the child and guilt, regardless of the cause of the loss]) and the specific benefits given the AP, the TP, the TP’s associates, and family. A clear picture of these benefits will help the collaborating professionals take the unambiguous approach required. Any ambivalence regarding the benefits will feed the polarization in the family. If there are no clear benefits to the child, given the nature of the family, treatment may prove fruitless.

  9. Realizing that confrontation rarely helps. For example, if the issue is loss, focusing on reducing the loss is more likely to help than confronting the alienation and bringing on the threat of more loss.

  10. Providing emotional support. The AP may need a great deal of emotional support for correction to take place, as the breakdown of the alienation may bring to the surface serious problems for the AP.”

Source:  American Journal of Family Law. Vol. 10. 121-133 (1996)

Understanding and Collaboratively Treating Parental Alienation Syndrome

Kenneth H. Waldron, Ph.D. and David E. Joanis, J.D.
Madison, Wisconsin


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