by Despina Vassiliou
Department of Educational Psychology and Counselling, McGill University
3700 McTavish, Montreal, QC, Canada H3A 1Y2
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The present qualitative study examined lost parents’ perceptions of the alienating circumstances they and their families experienced in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the nature of Parental Alienation Syndrome and its consequences. The participants included five fathers and one mother who perceived themselves as having experienced PAS. The data were collected via semi-structured, open-ended interview questionnaires. The results consisted of verbatim data transcribed from participants’ tape recorded responses. A qualitative analysis of the compiled data was performed for each participant. This section presents a summary and discussion of all the results. The four previously outlined study objectives are addressed with respect to the findings of the present study.
Question 1: Are there characteristics (e.g., number of children, number of marriages, etc.) common to alienated families?
Previous studies on alienation that have examined the role of family characteristics as possible factors in the occurrence of the alienation have found differing results. For instance, in the study conducted by Dunne and Hedrick (1994) family characteristics were not found to be a factor of PAS, whereas a study conducted by Calabrese et al., (1987) found that characteristics of individuals were better predictors of alienation than family characteristics. Specifically, high levels of alienation were found to be associated with unemployed, single mothers with a daughter. Further, the daughter was found to have had few friends. Although a number of the participants in the present study had tended to only one PAS child, the lost parents tended to remarry after the alienation, and the alienators had tended to relocate with the PAS child. These results were found to be weak indicators of PAS as they were not reported by a majority of the participants (i.e., greater than 50%). Supporting the results of Dunne and Hedrick (1994), it appears that family characteristics such as number of children, number of marriages, and number of relocations are weak indicators in the occurrence of PAS. Though these findings contradict those of Calabrese et al., (1987), they examined different family characteristics reported by the alienator and found that individual family members characteristics, such as the alienator’s employment and the gender of PAS and non-PAS children were relevant in the occurrence of PAS. Further study is required with a larger sample and more detailed questions concerning the number and gender of PAS children and non-PAS children, the number of marriages by both alienator and lost parent, the current marital status and employment of each parent, and the number and reasons for relocations. With these specific questions, a larger sample, and a comparison group of non-PAS divorced families, more light might be shed on the role of family characteristics in the occurrence of PAS.
Question 2: Are there common themes or issues among the conflicts within couples that contribute to marriage dissolution?
Previous studies examined the effects of conflict involved in separation and/or divorce on individual family members. For instance, Johnston, Gonzalez, and Campbell (1987) examined the behaviour of children from separated and/or divorced families who were subjected to “entrenched” parental conflict regarding their custody. It was postulated, in the current study, that an elevated level of conflict contributed to the occurrence of PAS. However, the results suggest that the dissolution of the PAS marriages occurred with varying degrees of conflict, from high levels of conflict including physical aggression, to situations with absolutely no conflict. The current study also found that with time, the majority of the participants reported strained relationships with their ex-spouses, where most had little or no contact with their ex-spouses due to a degradation of communication between the parents. These results suggest that there may be other factors aside from initial marital conflict that contributes to the occurrence of PAS. Lund’s (1995) findings indicated that a heightened number of conflicts occurring during the divorce, not during the marriage, may contribute to the occurrence of PAS. Again, further study of separating families is necessary to determine whether it is other factors that occur during the dissolution of the marriage and subsequent custody proceedings or if it is the time of the conflicts with respect to the divorce that plays a more significant role in PAS. Such studies should consist of a long-term examination of the situations that occur in separating families and the family member’s responses to them. For instance, a future study may have participants maintain daily journals that chronicle the events of the separation and these journals may later be analyzed qualitatively in order to determine whether any similarities exist across different families.
Question 3: Are there common themes in the participants’ experience of the alienation process?
Several common themes among the cases were found in the present study. Interestingly, these commonalties spanned the continent; they were not focused geographically. One commonality was that the PAS children were “enlisted” by the alienating parent as secondary alienators to them (i.e., to the primary alienator) to contribute to the alienation. This finding is consistent with the characteristics of PAS children described by Gardner (1992). Also described by Gardner (1992) and Cartwright (1993), others such as grandparents participated and contributed to the alienation. The reasons for which extended family members participate in that alienation remains unclear. Although there is some support for the notion that the closeness of these other alienators to the alienating parent may play a role, the results were inconclusive. A future study could contribute to the knowledge of PAS by examining the roles of the extended family members of PAS children.
A second commonality was that the lost parents reported feeling powerless as a result of the alienating situation. Others, especially the children, appeared to have gained control of the lost parents’ behaviour. These children could determine when, if at all, they would see their lost parent under what circumstances, and particularly what the lost parent would do with the child. The lost parent had to be careful not to anger their child lest they not see the child again. The sense that power shifted from the parent to the child, although not previously examined in the field of PAS, remains a logical consequence of the custody proceedings. As Turkat (1994) noted, the family undergoes a shift from having two parents who make decisions for the child, to one parent becoming a “visitor” in the child’s life. The “visiting” parent then loses the influence that he or she had previously and is unable to make the same decisions as he or she once did.
Third, the results suggest a lack of satisfaction with the services rendered by both legal and mental health professionals. The participants perceived a lack of knowledge of PAS on the part of the professionals, as well as a failure at the professional level to gather pertinent information prior to drawing conclusions. Participants perceived the psychological services they received as not helping the alienating situation, and perceived the legal professionals as supporting and even contributing to the alienation. The sense of dissatisfaction toward mental health professionals may be merited. Currently, there is a minimal amount of research conducted on PAS by psychologists and psychiatrists. Consequently, the number of these professionals who have any knowledge and understanding of PAS may be limited. Further research and discussion of the topic is imperative in order to provide more mental health professionals with greater knowledge of PAS and the intervention techniques that may be useful.
Legal professionals appear to be more aware of PAS as more articles are published by lawyers. However, the dissatisfaction with the legal system appears to stem from lawyers contributing to the alienation. Many have postulated that the legal system contributes to the occurrence of PAS (Gardner, 1992; 1991; Clawar & Rivlin, 1991; Dunne & Hedrick, 1994; and Girdner 1985). For instance, Cartwright (1993) had noted that prolonged legal proceedings contribute to the occurrence of PAS. Much of the blame for the occurrence of PAS may be related to the dissatisfaction the lost parents experienced with the legal system. This dissatisfaction may be due to the lost parents losing primary custody of their children to alienators. As a result, it is imperative that indicators and precursors of PAS be established in order to better inform judges, lawyers, and mental health professionals about PAS. These professionals, working together, can influence the outcome for PAS families. Their influence is shown with the findings of Dunne and Hedrick (1994) who linked the termination of PAS to the legal enforcement of a change in custody from the alienators to the lost parents. This finding was the only one to suggest an effective intervention for PAS families. Specifically, a possible intervention includes mental health professionals identifying PAS families to the legal professionals, who can then legally enforce the necessary change in custody.
The role of these professionals is also to inform others of PAS and its consequences. Currently, Anita Woolfolk (1998), in her bestselling textbook Educational Psychology, provides some startling information to student teachers. In her note to be “sensitive” to the rights of information for both parents, she suggests the following:
1. “When parents have joint custody, both are entitled to receive information and attend parent-teacher conferences.”
2. “The noncustodial parent may still be concerned about the child’s school progress.” (emphasis added) (p. 96)
In her first point, she neglects to mention the rights of noncustodial parents and when she does so in her second point, she states that they “may still be concerned” about their child. Such remarks provide future teachers with the impression that once a parent loses custody they also lose their parental rights and feelings for their children. Under Quebec law, Article 648 stipulates that a parent retains parental authority even if that parent does not have physical custody of the child (as cited in Department of Justice Canada, 1993). Specifically, parental authority is elaborated in Article 647 of the Quebec Civil Code (as cited in Department of Justice Canada, 1993) is stated as follows:
The father and mother have the rights and duties of custody, supervision and education of their children. They must maintain their children.
Fourth, the results of the present study suggest that the lost parents attributed the cause of the alienation to the alienators’ feelings and desires. Specifically, they perceived the alienators’ actions as motivated by hate and anger, revenge or some combination of these. However, these results lack enough detail to determine whether these motivations may be influenced by the influences that Gardner (1992) had suggested, such as the alienators’ mental health and the legal system. Specifically, the motivations of hate and/or anger and revenge found in the present study may be mediated by the alienators’ mental health as well as the alienators’ reactions to the lengths, processes, and outcomes of their legal cases.
Fifth, the results suggest a change in the frequency of visitation and custody arrangements impact on the relationships between the lost parents and their children. The participants reported that primary custody was given to the mother at the onset of the divorce, regardless of who later became the alienator and who later became the lost parent. Further, the fathers all had a consistent visitation schedule at the beginning of the custody arrangements (e.g., one weekend every two weeks). The final custody arrangements resulted in the alienators receiving custody and the lost parents receiving a significant reduction in their visitation schedules from half the original plan to no contact at all. Of interest is the apparent gender bias in initial custody agreements; specifically, mothers received primary custody. However, following the alienation all the lost parents — even the mother with initial primary custody — had their visitation drastically reduced. Moreover, as expected with a reduction of visitation, the lost parents described limited relationships with their children to whom they often wrote without reply. The only exception were two fathers who related that they probably maintained a relatively steady relationship with their children because the PAS was mild and even one of these fathers was alienated from his eldest child and with whom he had a limited relationship.
Overall, these findings indicate that there are several possible factors, such as changes in relationships among family members, the roles of mental health and legal professionals, as well as custody arrangements, that may be indicators or precursors to PAS. All of these factors lend support to several of Lund’s (1995) findings. First, Lund’s (1995) identified separation difficulties that are developmentally inappropriate as a contribution to PAS. It is possible that the pattern of the change in custody arrangements (where the alienator received primary custody at the end of the custody dispute) may result in the separation difficulties described by Lund’s (1995). Second, a characteristic of PAS children is that they exhibit some form of “oppositional” behaviour at least to the lost parent, as supported in the present study. Third, Lund’s (1995) also found that the non-custodians’ parental skills deteriorated and contributed to the occurrence of PAS. Such deterioration of the parental skills may be a result of the lost parent’s sense of lost power over their situation and, as indicated in the present study, they did not exercise their usual parenting styles. The lost parents reported that they felt that disciplining the PAS child may result in the child becoming angry and retaliating by denying visits with the lost parent. Since there appears to be several factors that may influence the occurrence of PAS, a long-term study that examines these singly and in combination may provide a useful insight as to possible indicators.
Question 4: Given the opportunity, what are some things that the lost parents perceive they might do differently?
The results of the current study suggest that armed with the knowledge they have now, each participant would have taken other means in order to prevent the current alienated situation from ever occurring. Examples of the means they would take include never having married, taking different legal routes, or seeking psychological services at an earlier date. Few studies have addressed this issue, however, the importance of preventing PAS is evident in that all of the participant’s would never want to repeat the experience.
A summary of the findings of the present study is as follows:
(1) Family characteristics, such as number of children, number of marriages, and the alienators number of relocations were weak factors in the occurrence of PAS.
(2) Marital conflicts and their intensity were weak predictors in the occurrence of PAS.
(3) As expected, the relationship between the alienating and lost parents were strained after the onset of PAS.
(4) There was a general decrease in the frequency of visitation for the lost parent which may or may not have been due to PAS.
(5) There was a reduction of other contacts (aside from visitation) between the lost parents and their children that, as expected, limited their relationship.
(6) By the very nature of PAS, all of the participants perceived a general “sabotage” of their relationships with their children by the alienators. The findings confirmed that the alienators used denigrating techniques (e.g., implying that the lost parents were not good people).
(7) The children acted as secondary alienators.
(8) The alienator’s closer family members tended to also alienate.
(9) The participants perceived the underlying cause of the alienation as the hatred toward the lost parents, anger, or revenge, or some combination of these.
(10) The lost parents experienced a loss of parental role and power whether or not they had visitation with their children.
(11) Although the lost parents sought the assistance of both legal and mental health professionals, they remained dissatisfied with these services. Both the legal and mental health professionals have inadequately explored all the parameters implied in PAS.
(12) The participants, provided that they had the knowledge about PAS that they presently have, would have behaved differently towards their ex-spouse.
(13) As expected, the participants perceived the alienating circumstances as exerting serious negative emotional and financial consequences on their lives.
(14) They hoped to be able to be reunited with their children in the future. They would be able to do so by maintaining contact with the children (i.e., by sending letters and cards). These findings illustrate both the complexity and seriousness of PAS. Thus the ability to identify precursors, indicators, and effective interventions for these families is essential.
Limitations of the Study and Recommendations for Additional Research
The research conducted in the present study involved a small sample of participants who described themselves as victims of PAS and consequently, generalizations can only be made cautiously. Although some pre-defined criteria were given as a basis for choosing the participants, additional specific criteria are necessary. For instance, a useful future criterion may be that the participants be identified as PAS subjects by trained professionals. However, due to time limitations, a lack of resources and the difficulty of identifying cases of PAS when there were so few professionals who had any knowledge of PAS, it might be difficult for a researcher to include this criteria. Second, interviews were conducted by telephone due to the great distances involved. Such a means of interview may be prone to overlook or minimize important qualitative data from nonverbal cues. Ideally, with a larger sample size, possibly a random sample, and the inclusion of a comparison group (e.g., families involved in amicable divorces) greater generalizability may be attained in such a study. To date there is very little research specifically on PAS; much that is known remains tentative. Further building on the data base available to researchers to date can provide greater information upon which to base hypotheses for future research.
The importance of a greater wealth of knowledge on PAS is evident by examining the focus placed on problems encountered in custody disputes by the government. The Senate of Canada has debated drafts of legislation Bill-C41, whose principle is to have both spouses share the “financial obligation to maintain the children of the marriage in accordance with their relative abilities” (Chapter 1, article 11-2). As a result, the Senate of Canada and the House of Commons has created a Joint Committee on Custody and Access. The purpose of this committee is to “examine and analyze issues relating to parenting arrangements after separations and divorce” (Senate Debates, October 28, 1997, pp. 253). Senator Anne C. Cools presented a speech to amend certain aspects of the Joint Committee. The amendment passed and has been sent to the House of Commons for their approval. The amendment Senator Anne C. Cools proposed was to have the Joint Committee on Custody and Access examine important issues relating to separation and divorce. Specifically, she noted that issues such as Parental Alienation Syndrome and false allegations of sexual abuse are difficulties that non-custodial parents encounter. As a result the Committee will set out to:
assess the need for a more child-centred approach to family law policies and practices that would emphasize joint parental responsibilities and child-focused parenting arrangements based on children’s needs and best interests; (Senate Debates, p. 257)
The Committee will be examining issues related to custody and access to children after divorce and separation. Mental health professionals will likely be sources of information for this Committee, and Parental Alienation Syndrome will likely be a relevant issue to be examined. Consequently, mental health professionals need to examine PAS further in order to provide both pertinent information to the Committee and more importantly help for the families of PAS.
Arditti, J. A. (1992). Factors related to custody, visitation, and child support for divorced fathers: An exploratory analysis. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 17(3-4), 23-42.
BILL-C41, Chapter 1, Statutes of Canada (1997).
Calabrese, R. M., Miller, J. W., and Dooley, B. (1987). The identification of alienated parents and children: Implications for school psychologists. Psychology in the Schools, 24, 145-150.
Cartwright, G. F. (1993). Expanding the parameters of parental alienation syndrome. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 21(3), 205-215.
Child custody and access reform: Special joint committee established, Senate of Canada, Senate Debates, 1997.
Clawar, S. S., and Rivlin, B. V. (1991). Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children. Chicago: American Bar Association.
Demo, A. H. and Acock, A. C. (1988). The impact of divorce on children, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 50, 619-648.
Department of Justice Canada (1993). Custody and access: Public discussion. Canada, Ministry of Supply and Services Canada.
Dunne, J., and Hedrick, M. (1994). The parental alienation syndrome: An analysis of sixteen cases. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 21(3/4), 21-38.
Gardner, R. A. (1991). Psychotherapeutic and legal approaches to the three types of parental alienation syndrome families. In Family evaluation in child custody mediation, arbitration, and litigation. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
Gardner, R. A. (1992). The Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Guide for Mental Health and Legal Professionals. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
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Lund, M. (1995). A therapist’s view of parental alienation syndrome. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 33(3), 308-316.
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LETTERS TO PARTICIPANTS
PARENTAL ALIENATION STUDY
If you or someone you know has experienced Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and are willing to participate in a study, please contact Despina at (514)-840-1159 or via e-mail at dvassi@PO-BOX.Mcgill.Ca.
*PAS is defined as a syndrome where one parent (usually the custodial parent) attempts to alienate the child or children from another parent. It includes a series of conscious and subconscious techniques, such as brainwashing, by the alienating parent, as well as the child or children’s own contributions for denigrating the allegedly hated parent (Cartwright, 1993, Gardner, 1992).
Note: All consent forms will be kept by the researcher (Despina Vassiliou) until the completion and acceptance of her thesis and graduation. After that time, the consent forms will be destroyed.
McGill University Research Project
The Effects of Parental Alienation Syndrome on Individual Family Members
We are presently conducting research that will examine the development of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)* within the family unit. More specifically, we are interested in examining each of the family member’s role in the alienation process. Participants will be asked a series of questions pertaining to the alienating relationships within the family unit. The questions are straightforward and will take approximately one hour to discuss and will be tape recorded. Your responses will be kept completely confidential and anonymous. You are not under any obligation to participate, and you may choose to discontinue the study at any point. If you agree to participate in this research project, please sign the form below.
We greatly appreciate your consideration of this project. We would be delighted to provide more background information and answer any questions you might have. For more information, please do not hesitate to contact us. Thank you.
MA student, School Psychology
Glenn F. Cartwright, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Educational Psychology
I, ________________________, agree to participate in the McGill PAS study.
(Please print your name in full)
1. Describe to me your current family constellation?
· How many children do you have?
· Are they currently living with you?
· If no, how often do you get to see them if at all?
· Have you remarried?
2. Describe your current relationship with your ex-spouse.
Beginning of the Marital Dissolution:
3. When did the conflicts that lead to the dissolution of your marriage begin?
4. Did you see a common theme or issue in the conflicts?
5. How long did these conflicts before divorce became an option?
6. Who initiated the divorce and on what grounds?
Initiating and Proceedings of the Custody Case(s):
7. Describe the events that lead up to the custody proceedings?
8. How long was each of the legal cases (custody and divorce)?
9. Do you remember an occasion during the custody proceedings that lead to the delay of the case?
· What effects did the delay have on the case?
· What effects did the delay have on your children and your relationship with them?
Contributions to P.A.S.:
10. Tell me some factors that contributed to the alienation in your case?
11. Do you believe that you had any role or make any contributions to the alienating situation?
12. What were your children’s role in the alienation? Describe some of their behaviours.
· Describe some of your behaviours or actions that contributed to the alienation?
13. Tell me about the effects of the alienation on your relationship with your children?
14. Describe for me your relationship with your children today?
15. Do you remember an occasion when other individuals contributed to the alienation? (How?)
Cause and Possible Termination of P.A.S.:
16. For how long did the alienation occur (in months)?
17. What do you believe was the underlying cause of the alienation?
18. How do you feel about the alienation now?
19. Has the alienation ceased? In your opinion, why is this so?
If the alienation has ceased:
· How long has it been since you have been removed from the alienated situation?
· Can you tell me about the circumstances that have made it possible for the alienation to have been terminated?
If the alienation has not ceased:
· Do you believe that there is a possibility of a reconciliation?
· If yes, what do you believe would make a reconciliation possible?
20. When and how did you realize the implications of what was occurring, with regard to the alienation?
21. What do you feel is the impact of this whole experience on your life?
22. Had you or any of your family members sought out services for emotional assistance?
· Who? And for what reasons?
· What was the outcome? (Were there any diagnoses made? Were you taking any medication?)
· How did you or they cope with the situation on your/their own?
23. How do you view the experience now as compared to how you viewed it then (while you were experiencing it)?
24. Has your opinion changed over time? How much time? How did it change?
25. Is there anything else that you would like to change or do over again?
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CERTIFICATE OF ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITY
The original article can be found here: http://www.fact.on.ca/Info/pas/vassil98.htm#CHAPTER%205