Therapeutic Interventions and the Alienated Child: Whose Interests Are We Serving, and How Are We Serving Them?

I’ve just finished writing a paper on alienated and estranged children for an recent seminar provided by the Continuing Legal Education Society of British Columbia, their tenth Biennial Family Law Conference. The paper’s subject matter has lingered with me, in particular certain concerns about the therapeutic options available to the court once alienation has been established.

I will assume that readers have at least a passing familiarity with the concept of parental alienation. Very briefly, a child’s relationship with a parent can be damaged, sometimes severed, as a result of the behaviour of the rejected parent, the behaviour of the favoured parent or the behaviour of both. When a child repudiates a parent because of that parent’s past conduct, the child is said to be justifiably or realistically estranged from that parent. Family violence and a rigid, authoritarian approach to discipline are common reasons why a child may become estranged from a parent. When the child repudiates a parent because of the favoured parent’s efforts to poison the parent-child relationship, the child is said to be alienated from the rejected parent.

Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston, in their critical 2001 article “The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome,” describe alienated children as children who “stridently and without apparent guilt or ambivalence … strongly resist or completely refuse any contact with that rejected parent.” They write that:

“Although there may be some kernel of truth to the child’s complaints and allegations about the rejected parent, the child’s grossly negative views and feelings are significantly distorted and exaggerated reactions. Thus, this unusual development … is a pathological response. It is a severe distortion on the child’s part of the previous parent-child relationship. These youngsters … are responding to complex and frightening dynamics within the divorce process itself, to an array of parental behaviors, and also to their own vulnerabilities that make them susceptible to becoming alienated. The profound alienation of a child from a parent most often occurs in high-conflict custody disputes …”

Now, when alienation has been established in a family law case, the question that keeps judges up at night is what can be done about it, and frankly none of the legal and therapeutic options are particularly good. Lately, however, the concept of reunification therapy seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance, and it’s this that I wish to talk about.

The problem facing the court in alienation cases is obvious: the relationship between a parent and a child has broken down. Since it is usually in children’s best interests to maintain a positive, loving relationship with both parents, and the rejected parent is in court trying to maintain exactly that relationship, the solution is therefore equally obvious: restore the parent-child relationship.

Three points, however, stand in the way of this tidy, if somewhat simplistic, analysis: (1) the child doesn’t want to spend any time with the rejected parent and will certainly experience some degree of trauma at being taken from the home of the loved parent and forced into the home of the rejected parent, while (2) leaving the child in the home of the favoured parent risks exposing the child to continuing efforts to nurture rancour toward the rejected parent, and, making things worse, (3) many of the strategies commonly employed to regulate the favoured parent’s behaviour or enforce contact between the child and the rejected parent – including fines, contempt proceedings and peace officer enforcement – can backfire and inadvertently entrench the child’s attitudes toward the rejected parent. This leaves counselling, or some other type of therapeutic intervention, looking pretty good; after all, parental alienation can’t be cured by court order.

Psychologist Randy Rand developed a specialized program aimed at reuniting recovered missing children with their parents in the early 90s. His program, Family Bridges: A Workshop for Troubled and Alienated Parent-Child Relationships, which I believe was the first of its kind, was eventually extended to serve alienated children who hadn’t been abducted and whose parents were separating. Since that time, and particularly in the last decade, organizations offering programs to a similar effect have popped up across Canada and the United States. Many of these programs purport to provide “reunification” or “reintegration” therapy, either in an overnight or day camp format or in a series of intense group and individual counselling sessions.

Although reunification programs sound like an ideal response to parental alienation, it is important that one’s analysis of the needs and interests at play not stop at this tempting junction. Firstly, I suggest that a little more thought should be given to purpose of the reunification therapy, because the purpose of such interventions should not be the restoration of the parent-child relationship. Secondly, there is the trickier issue of picking the right reunification program.

The Purpose of Therapeutic Interventions

Let me explain that first point. In my view, orders for reunification therapy that are made for the purpose of restoring the parent-child relationship wrongly prioritize the interests of the rejected parent over those of the alienated child for two reasons:

  1. the best interests of the child are the “only,” the “paramount” or the “primary” consideration in all decisions affecting children, depending on the legislation at hand; and,
  2. the “victim” of alienation, from my perspective, is not the rejected parent but the child.

As a result, it seems to me that the primary purpose of therapeutic interventions should not be the restoration of the parent-child relationship, although that may be a byproduct of the intervention; the primary purpose should be restoring the child. Remember the observations of Kelly and Johnston: “the child’s grossly negative views and feelings” toward the rejected parent “are significantly distorted and exaggerated reactions”; those views are “a pathological response” and “a severe distortion on the child’s part of the previous parent-child relationship.” This is what therapeutic responses to alienation should seek to address.

Johnston, in her article “Therapeutic Work with Alienated Children and Their Families,” says that the purpose of such interventions should be to “transform the child’s distorted, rigidly held” views of the rejected parent “into more realistic and measured ones, rooted in the child’s actual experience of both parents.” Likewise, Nicholas Bala, in “Alienated Children and Parental Separation,” writes that “the goal of intervention should be the promotion of a child’s wellbeing, and therefore best interests, and not to advance the ‘rights’ of a rejected parent.”

It is difficult to take the position that primary purpose of reunification therapy ought not be the restoration of the parent-child relationship. The pain felt by rejected parents is acute, these cases evoke a great deal of empathy on the part of counsel and it is extraordinarily difficult to suppress one’s natural urge to rail against the evil and injustice of alienation. However, we must remember that the best interests of the child simply must come first. The moral blameworthiness of the alienating parent’s conduct has nothing to do with the course of action that is in the child’s best interests.

Now, I am not saying that reunification programs are wrong-headed; many of them are not. In fact, Richard Warshak, writing about Family Bridges in a recent article, does not list the restoration of the parent-child relationship as among they key goals of the program, which he says include:

  1. facilitating and strengthening children’s ability to maintain healthy relationships with both parents;
  2. helping children avoid being caught in the middle of their parents’ conflict;
  3. strengthening children’s critical thinking skills;
  4. helping children maintain balanced views of each parent; and,
  5. strengthening the family members’ ability to communicate with one another and manage conflicts.

This is an eminently reasonable, child-centred approach that places the wellbeing of children front and centre. The restoration of the parent-child relationship would certainly be a wonderful result, but it is not a goal of the program.

Picking a Therapeutic Intervention

As I said earlier, responding to situations of parental alienation has fostered a North American cottage industry in reunification programs, and, as I learned reviewing the case law for my paper, not all are created equal. It can be very difficult, however, for counsel and court to separate the wheat from the chaff; one glossy brochure with photographs of smiling children and sunrises looks very much like another.

First off, we should always be concerned about conflicts of interest when a custody assessor makes a finding of alienation and recommends his or her own program as a solution. Second, we should be wary of claimed success rates that are simply too good to be true. In such cases, enquiries must be made to determine what other mental health professionals think of the proposed program, and we must examine how the program defines “success” and whether the success rate was determined in-house or by an objective evaluator.

Other factors to consider include whether:

  1. the program is intended to achieve specific outcomes and is based on a hypothesis that can be empirically tested;
  2. the principals of the program are able to produce research supporting their hypothesis and program design;
  3. the principals of the program are engaged in its ongoing evaluation;
  4. the evaluation of the program includes a long-term follow-up component;
  5. the principals of the program are able to report the program’s success rate;
  6. the principals of the program have significant experience in providing services for families and children;
  7. the principals of the program are professionally recognized and respected by their peers;
  8. the principles of the program and all therapeutic staff are licensed and insured members of their applicable provincial regulatory body;
  9. the program intake process includes screening for family violence, substance abuse and significant mental illness;
  10. the program’s treatment regime differentiates between alienation and justified estrangement; and,
  11. the program includes an aftercare component.

I further suggest that the presence of one or more of the following warning signs should probably discourage further consideration of a particular program:

  1. a principal of the program is not a member of the applicable regulatory body;
  2. a principal of the program purports to holds one or more advanced degrees from online universities;
  3. a principal of the program is not recognized by, respected by or widely known among his or her peers;
  4. the reported success rate of the program sounds too good to be true;
  5. the program intake lacks a screening process and will accept all comers; and,
  6. the principals of the program will not discuss their hypothesis, their methodology or the research supporting their approach.

If you have concluded that the case you’re dealing with is one in which some sort of therapeutic intervention, you owe it to the child, and to the parents, to pick a program that is well thought out and well thought of.

John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The Institute is a federally-incorporated charity established in 1987 and is affiliated with the University of Calgary


  1. Re: “…Now, when alienation has been established in a family law case, the question that keeps judges up at night is what can be about it, and frankly none of the legal and therapeutic options are particularly good….”

    Some legal options are, however, particularly bad, such as putting the children into indefinite juvenile detention for contempt of court, leading a lawyer to file a habeas petition on their behalf:

  2. Michael Robinson

    One observation from a recently published judgment in the UK in the case Re H-B [2015] EWCA Civ 389. A feature of the case was it had rolled on for 5 years with nothing apparent in the appellate judgment relating to steps to address the alienating parent’s behaviour.

    Best practice from the upper courts is that investigations must be conducted early, and findings of fact held early as false allegations often lead to delays in getting contact re-established. Personally, I believe the introduction of supervised contact at an early stage is very helpful (not only to keep some form of contact going during the interim) as part of the evidence building process.

    The President of the Family Court, Sir James Munby, spoke in the judgment of the parents needing to use the carrot and the stick to make contact happen (parents exercising parental control). He misses the point that the court’s failure to do the same in the case (as reported) meant that any work done by the therapist over a course of an hour was unpicked in the days between sessions. Unless a court has a strategy to deal with this, it’s not surprising therapy fails. The article suggests that punitive measures can backfire, but having no consequence to alienating behaviour arguably carries greater risks.

    Personally, I share Lord Justice Ryder’s opinion that it is untenable (or should be) to leave a child in the care of the alienating parent with the alienation unaddressed – W (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 772.

    The court and professions should be taking a lead in providing guidance on how these cases are managed making use of a Practice Direction bringing together best practice from some of the leading judgments (they exist!).

    As for suitable therapy, it seems incongruous that in every other branch of medicine / psychology there’s a demand and expectation that treatment is subject to stringent peer review and research. There needs to be more investment in this area, especially as it involves child protection issues.

  3. Thanks for bringing the UK perspective on this issue, Michael. I’m impressed that your courts have adopted an early intervention approach to cases of suspected alienation. Although researchers like like Barbara Jo Fidler, Nick Bala and Michael Saini strongly recommend early assessment and others including Joan Kelly and Matthew Sullivan support the restoration of contact, the Canadian case law doesn’t demonstrate an enthusiasm for early interventions.

    As for the tenability of leaving an alienated child in the care of the favoured parent with the alienation unaddressed, inasmuch as the alienation represents a severe distortion of the child’s thinking and reasoning, I agree that the alienation should be addressed. Not because of the alienation per se, but because the child’s mental state is disturbed and the disturbance can have profound effects on children’s short- and long-term wellbeing. Amy Baker, Naomi Ben-Ami, Nick Bala and Barbara Jo Fidler have done some really interesting work in this area.

    Your idea of a practice direction is very attractive. That’s something I’d love to see the Canadian Bar Association’s family law section take up. Unfortunately, the volume of alienation claims seems to be increasing year after year, and some guidance on judicial response to the problem would be valuable.

  4. What would help these situations immensely would be the early intervention by the courts to at least determine if a child has distorted views of a parent, if the other parent is the cause of these views and whether or not the parent who is causing the child to be thinking this way is doing so knowingly and with malicious intent. The longer it takes to makes these determinations the harder it is to repair the damage caused.

    I am not a lawyer but having firsthand experience as the “rejected parent” this is causing very real damage to my children and myself and although she would not agree I believe it is causing the children’s mother harm in the long run as my son has refused to live with her any longer and no longer talks with his mother although if she were to make an effort to talk to him I believe he would put forth an effort to have a relationship with her.

    Should point out that my daughter is not to the point yet of totally rejecting me yet in the three years since our separation she has gone from wanting to spend as much time with me as her mother or the courts would allow. To telling me on our last visit why she is unsure if she can ever forgive me and the reasons why are mostly fabrications of stuff that either never happened or highly exaggerated versions of things that did happen. She tells me she is upset because of past substance abuse problems I had and that I didn’t tell her about them she had to hear it from her mother. Other reasons she gives she couldn’t know as they either did not happen, she was a baby or not even born, or are so twisted and exaggerate that a ten yer old couldn’t not have made up on her own. Mr. Boyd I understand your opinion on doing what is best for the child but is it ever in the best interests of the child to be subjected to what basically amounts to brainwashing and child abuse? How about the parent having to watch their child not only turned against them but also the harm it causes the child in other aspects of their life’s such as school and the social interactions with others. Subconsciously the child knows the rejected parent is not the person they are led to believe and because of that the guilt is causing adverse behavior in other aspects of their lives.

    I have little faith for much help in my case. I have watched my ex’s council flat out lie to judges over the last couple years to prevent myself any more parenting time than a couple hours a week, I have gotten reports of my daughters worsening behavior and school and in other social activities The few adults that were in her life that I could trust to try and look out for her and be there to provide support have slowly been weeded out of her life by her mother because they dared criticize her treatment of the children.

    I don’t think it is possible in the majority of cases to successfully stop this or even much hope that more than a small fraction of cases will be even be classified as such when you have unrepresented parents going up against trained lawyers. Many from what I have seen have little to no care about what harm is being done to the children. When I mention to a judge why I believe my daughter felt the way she mentioned in a views of the child report all I was told was that it is almost impossible for me to prove. When i said I dont think I have much choice but to try anyway i was told I always have a choice but the judge didn’t bother mentioning what those choices might be. Should I actually consider just abandoning my daughter to this sort of abuse or should i wait till my daughter is made to completely hate her father then give up? are there other choices I am unaware of?