Managing Contact Difficulties: A Child-Centred Approach



In addition to the work of Gardner, and Kelly and Johnston, there is a substantial literature concerning the concept of alienation. But, due to the paucity of empirical research in the area, we located few studies that examined alienation using objective standards. If there are currently other studies underway, to the best of our knowledge they have not been submitted for publication at this time. We did not find research pertaining to interventions that address contact difficulties or outcome evaluation related to specific interventions; we believe that research is needed in this area.

For the most part, the studies about alienation are exploratory in nature and rely on descriptive statistics and correlations between variables. They have inherent methodological difficulties ranging from small sample sizes and biased sampling techniques to non-independent information sources, inadequate sample descriptions, lack of control groups, and inconsistency across studies in definition and measurement. Despite their limitations, these studies represent an important beginning for increasing our understanding of contact difficulties.

Clawar and Rivlin (1991) studied 700 families over a twelve-year period. They described ways that parents "programmed" or "brainwashed" children and the children's wish for the behaviours to end. They also noted discrepancies between the children's opinions, and wishes and behaviours.

Based on Gardner's diagnostic criteria, Dunne and Hedrick (1994) conducted a qualitative analysis of 16 cases of severe alienation. In three of these cases, custody was changed—an intervention deemed "successful in eradicating the alienation". In the other 13 cases, therapeutic intervention and/or a guardian ad litem were used. The alienation was "somewhat improved" in only two of these cases. In another two cases, the alienation was considered "worse," and in the remainder of the sample, "no different" after intervention.

Lampel (1996) profiled the psychological attributes of parents and child-parent relationships in a sample of 44 families with at least one school-aged child involved in custody evaluation. In this sample, 41 percent of the children were aligned with one parent. Both parents of children in the aligned group were found to be more rigid, naively defended, and less emotive than the parents of non-aligned children. Lampel concluded that aligned children expressed a preference for the more empathic, outgoing and problem-solving parent. Aligned children were also more overtly angry and less able to conceptualize complex problems. They were also seen to be more self-confident, perhaps because they were less troubled by loyalty conflicts.

Kopetski (1998) identified the familial and personality characteristics that contribute to alienation in a sample of 413 court-ordered custody evaluations. In 84 of these cases, she considered the alienation to be severe (based on Gardner's criteria). The familial and personality characteristics identified include: personality disorder, defending against psychological pain by externalizing, abnormal grieving, and family of origin difficulties such as ambivalence and conflict about parents, enmeshment and failure to differentiate or emancipate from a parent or family culture in which ‘splitting' or externalizing predominates. Other possible factors are unresolved or unacknowledged grief resulting from traumatic losses, severe but unacknowledged emotional deprivation, or parents who were favoured as children, overly indulged or idealized.

3.1 Recent Studies

3.1.1 Berns

Berns (2001) investigated the incidence of allegations of alienation in unreported court cases. She surveyed a range of family law professionals and reviewed unreported court cases (between January 1995 and March 2001) in Queensland, Australia. Berns' research objectives included:

  • Learning more about the incidence of alienation in litigation;
  • Understanding what the allegation was based on;
  • Determining ways in which the allegation was gender based; and,
  • Tracing the impact on the administration of family law.

Each case was compared to Gardner's criteria for PAS with special emphasis on persistent denigration of the target parent. If the criteria were met, the case was classified as mild, moderate or severe. Berns indicated that inter-rater reliability for the classification was established, although she did not provide details.

In her sample of 31 cases, fathers were allegedly the alienating parent in 14 cases and mothers in 17 cases. In the latter group, allegations were substantiated in 9 of the 17 cases. In 8 of the 17 cases, fathers' allegations were in response to mothers' allegations of sexual abuse. Domestic violence was a variable in three of these cases and mothers were seeking supervised contact or no contact. Berns attempts to draw patterns with respect to key variables from the qualitative analysis, but the small sample size precludes useful conclusions.

In the 14 cases where fathers were allegedly the alienating parent, all allegations were substantiated. In six of these cases, Berns reports that fathers made extensive and ongoing allegations of physical abuse and neglect that could not be substantiated when investigated. In all cases children remained or were returned to their mothers' homes. In another four cases there were persistent reports to child protective services. Berns notes that the reports increased as the allegations were rejected. Again, the small sample size limited her ability to draw useful conclusions about patterns of behaviour.

With respect to her first research question, Berns notes that alienation allegations represent a small proportion of divorces involving children. She concluded that alienation is not a gendered phenomenon because allegations against mothers were as common as allegations against fathers. It is interesting to note that in all cases where mothers alleged alienation, children lived with fathers or had extensive contact with fathers. On the basis of the findings regarding alienating fathers, she speculates they may use an allegation of alienation as a tactic in the litigation process. She also notes that men were more likely to allege alienation.

Data collected during a pilot project prior to the main study suggested that unrepresented parents were more likely to allege alienation. Berns notes that this group of parents tended to make allegations of sexual or physical abuse. She concludes this group of parents appears vulnerable to counter allegations of alienation and they fail to appreciate the evidentiary requirements of the court. Allegations of alienation made by this group of fathers typically countered a mother's allegation of sexual abuse or domestic violence. PAS allegations made by this group of mothers typically countered father's allegations of neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse by mother's new partner. She noted that if alienation allegations countered allegations of sexual or physical abuse and they were initially rejected, the alienation allegations tended to become more extreme and implausible. The allegations also tended to be supplemented with multiple calls to authorities such as child protective services. Berns expresses concern about the children of unrepresented litigants because they were subjected to extensive investigations by child protective services. Many of these cases were unsubstantiated or rejected by the court as unfounded.

The behavioural profile of the children in these families varied. Berns reports that in seven cases, the child's profile was consistent with severe alienation according to Gardner's criteria. In two cases, the alignment was split. The data suggested that younger children were more vulnerable to developmental implications.

3.1.2 Birnbaum and Radovanovic

In a pilot study, Birnbaum and Radovanovic (1999) investigated the utility of a brief and focussed evaluation for dealing with decision-making and scheduling issues in the post-divorce family. In this model, applicable to less entrenched cases, the intervention focusses on solutions and parental responsibilities. The intervention consists of approximately ten clinical hours and differs from a more traditional assessment. Extensive background information is de-emphasized and parents focus on the present situation and what the parents have done to resolve conflicts. The important variables for formulating the intervention are the children's needs and abilities, the quality of the parent-child relationship, the co-parental relationship and parenting responsibilities. The clinicians' techniques are drawn from solution-focussed models of brief therapy and include reframing and boundary setting. They educate parents about the impact of conflict for children and children's developmental needs. They also model successful problem solving. Information about the child provided by the clinician becomes the basis for working with the parents to create a parenting plan. Unlike mediation, in this model, the clinician is not neutral.

Criteria for sample selection for this study included: the presence of parental dispute based on an allegation of contact difficulties; concern over the impact of the child's schedule on child development and adjustment; or a dispute centered on a specific aspect of parenting and/or concerns about the quality of the parent-child relationship. Cases with allegations of physical or sexual abuse, serious parental alienation (undefined), or wife abuse were referred to a more comprehensive and traditional evaluation process and excluded from the study.

Forty parents agreed to a telephone interview six to eight months after intervention. All the parents reported that, since the intervention, they had continued with the new decision-making pattern. In the majority of cases, the non-residential parent was spending more time with the child subsequent to the intervention. The majority of parents reported that the intervention was influential in resolving the dispute. While the majority of parents rated the quality of the intervention as good (78 percent), a substantial number (45 percent) reported continued problems post-intervention.

The results suggest briefer interventions can be as effective and perhaps more efficient that comprehensive and longer assessments in resolving children's scheduling disputes.

Their data indicate that the "fit" between the types of case and the intervention model was a critical factor in influencing successful dispute resolution. Contracting with parents and preparing them and their legal counsel for the services was important to the success of the intervention. Birnbaum and Radovanovic conclude that although more rigorous research is needed, the model is a useful strategy for helping less entrenched parents to resolve disputes about the child's schedule.

3.1.3 Peralta-Vaughn

Peralta-Vaughn's (2001) exploratory research was conducted in partial fulfillment of her honours thesis at the University of Arizona, supervised by Sanford Braver. Braver is a well-known divorce researcher. Peralta-Vaughn's research questions included learning more about parents' potentially alienating behaviours, possible precursors of parental alienation behaviour, implications for children's adjustment in adulthood and the possible consequences of parental alienation. She assessed alienation as "… the occurrence of parental alienation behaviors by each parent within a family unit" (2001: 26).

Her subjects were drawn from the pool of students participating in an introductory psychology course (N=644) at the university. Sixty eight per cent (N=435) of the students agreed to participate. Of the original subject pool, 189 students reported their parents were divorced and 166 of them (87.8 percent) agreed to become subjects in the study. Another 269 students were eligible to be controls (i.e. parents remained together), 212 of which (79 percent) agreed to be part of the study.

Questionnaires concerning parent behaviour were distributed to the students in both the divorce and control groups, as well as to mothers and fathers of the divorced sub-sample. Data was collected about the legal custody arrangements, physical custody arrangements, the students' academic performance, adaptation to college, intimate relationship choices and substance use.

Attorneys who attended conference presentations or training sessions provided by Peralta-Vaughn's supervisor were also invited to complete a questionnaire on their experience with alienation cases. Data (yes/no responses) were collected from the attorneys with respect to the alienator's gender, economic disputes, custody disputes, re-partnering, psychopathology of litigants, presence of an adversarial attorney, gender of the initiator of the divorce, attempted alienation and successful alienation.

Based on the reports of subjects who experienced parental divorce:

  • There was no relationship between post-divorce legal custody arrangements and parents' alienating behaviours; and,
  • There was a relationship between post-divorce physical custody arrangements and parents' alienating behaviours.

Peralta-Vaughn reports that mothers were more likely to engage in alienating behaviours when fathers had physical custody. This finding, as she points out, is contrary to claims in the literature that mothers appear to alienate significantly more often when they have physical custody of the child.

There was no relationship between the child's gender and the degree of alienation or the gender of the parent engaging in alienating behaviour. The child's age at the time of divorce was associated with the amount of parental alienation reported. Specifically, students in this study who were 10-11 years at the time of the divorce reported a higher incidence of parents' alienating behaviours than other subjects. This result seems to confirm Wallerstein and Kelly's (1980) comments about the increased likelihood of alignments in older school-age children. When responses from the control group were compared with those from the divorced group, the results indicated that the divorced group reported significantly more parental alienation behaviour.

Based on data from the questionnaires completed by attorneys:

  • There was a positive correlation between the success of fathers' alienation attempts and sole custody litigation;
  • Fathers' alienating behaviours increased when mothers re-partnered;
  • The presence of serious psychopathology in a parent increased the risk of that parent engaging in alienating behaviour; and,
  • Mothers' success in alienating the child was significantly increased if fathers initiated the divorce.

Peralta-Vaughn (2001: 48) indicates that her results do not appear to support Gardner's views about the gender of the alienator because "… mothers were less likely to engage in alienation when the fathers opposed the mothers for sole legal custody". She also notes that the results did not provide evidence to indicate that having a more adversarial attorney predicted alienation behaviours on the part of parents.

3.1.4 Johnston

Johnston's (in press) goal was to learn more about the individual and family factors that predict a child's rejection of a parent after divorce. Her sample of 215 children (108 girls and 107 boys ranging from 5 to 14 years at follow-up) was drawn from an archival database collected between 1981 and 1991. The potential pool of 372 families, representing 600 children 18 years or younger, was reduced by including only the oldest child in multi-child families and those children for whom there was follow-up data available. The ratings drawn from the clinical summary data were prepared prior to the current debate about alienation.

Based on the data analysis, Johnston concluded that children's responses to parents' alienating behaviours are determined by many factors, including the contributions of parents and the child's vulnerabilities. The majority of children were not aligned with either parent. The overall mean scores for rejection of a parent were low. Extreme alignment was also relatively uncommon (8 to 9 percent of the sample). There was evidence that children whose parents litigated contact issues were more likely to be aligned with the mother and correspondingly more likely to reject the father.

Johnston identified the dynamics of situations where children reject a parent. The rejected fathers tended to lack warmth, empathy and cognitive understanding of the child's viewpoint. They were less able to communicate with children and less involved in the child's daily activities. These fathers made fewer attempts to enrich the child's life and provided less evidence of enjoying their relationship with their children. The data did not permit Johnston to determine to what extent the father's limitations might be a reaction to the child's rejection.

The mothers of children who rejected fathers were competent parents, but dependent on the child for support and approval. They tended to use the children as a support against depression and to fulfil their emotional needs. These mothers were likely to sabotage the child's relationship with the father, put the children in a messenger role or quiz the child about the father. They tended to withdraw affection or punish the child if she demonstrated affection for the father.

Johnston concludes that problem parenting and the deficits of both parents are related to their diminished social and emotional adjustment and sense of well-being post-divorce. Older children appeared more vulnerable than younger children and were more likely to reject the father. In her opinion, it is not surprising that children exhibit anxiety separating from their mother. For some of the children, she notes, the anxiety may be a developmentally normal response that is exacerbated by chronic litigation and competition for the child. There was no significant difference between boys and girls in this regard.

Mothers rejected by children appeared to be their own nemesis. Their parenting skills, such as warmth, empathy and capacity to communicate, were often lacking or compromised by the child's rejection and the ensuing dynamics. These mothers were less able to enrich the child's life and less involved in their activities. Their parenting limitations seemed linked to difficulties the mother experienced in her social and emotional adjustment. The child's anxiety at separating from the father was associated with rejection of the mother and compounded by ongoing litigation.

3.1.5 Rhoades

Rhoades (in press, personal communication) conducted a retrospective review of files with contact enforcement applications listed in 1999 for hearing before the Family Court of Australia (N=100). In a preliminary report on her findings, Nicholson (2002a) notes three important conclusions. First, there was often a misunderstanding of the nature of the obligation imposed by the court order. Second, parent education was an important strategy for intervention, particularly for the non-residential parent. Third, enforcement penalties appeared to be ineffective in improving contact between the child and a parent.

3.1.6 Trinder et al

Using a sample of 140 children from 61 families, Trinder et al. (2002) investigated the factors that contribute to viable contact. A range of techniques was used to generate a sample that included contested and uncontested contact arrangements, as well as a variety of legal arrangements and family backgrounds (i.e. socio-economic class, ethnicity and nationality, length of parenting relationship, length of separation and gender of residential parent). The average age of the children was 11 years. Semi-structured interviews with parents covered a range of topics including the nature of the separation, expectations and wishes for contact, history and nature of contact, arranging and negotiating contact, sources of advice and support, and their evaluation of contact arrangements. Children were asked about the pattern, amount and development of contact, their feelings at different stages of the relationship, and their involvement in decision-making about contact.

The data demonstrated that there is no ideal arrangement, nor is there an ideal quantity of contact. Rather the quality of relationships between parents and between the child and each parent is the more critical variable. Analysis of the qualitative data led to four key findings.

First, Trinder et al. identified three primary types of contact arrangements: consensual committed, faltering and conflicted. Parents who kept conflict to a low level, maintained friendly relationships and supported regular child-parent contact characterized the consensual committed group.

The faltering group included those with irregular or erratic contact. One subtype of this group had court involvement and the other did not. The conflicted group was comprised of families with contact disputes resulting from role conflicts or differing perceptions of risk.

The second key finding was that post-divorce contact is a difficult process that places significant demands on the child and the parents. These authors point out that even in low-conflict families, there were some difficulties related to contact. The types of difficulties described by children included establishing meaningful relationships with non-residential parents, relationships with the new partner of a non-residential parent and lack of opportunity to express their point of view about contact. The difficulties noted by residential parents ranged from continuing emotional engagement with the former partner, erratic contact patterns, conflict and risk. Non-residential parents stated that the major difficulties they encountered were adjusting to contact status and insecurity about their relationship with the child, parent conflict, and logistics such as time, money or distance.

Third, Trinder et al. reported there was no single ingredient or individual responsible for making contact work. The attitudes, actions, and interactions of the child, the parents and the parenting partnership shape successful contact. Their findings suggest that the quality and quantity of contact is influenced by the interaction of many factors including the presence of new partners, finances, parenting style, relationship skills and commitment to contact.

High-quality contact that benefits children requires ongoing proactive efforts on the part of both parents in addition to the absence of major difficulties. Contact that is meaningful for children requires the commitment of both parents and an acceptance by parents of their respective role in the child's life.

Fourth, the data underscored the difficulties that parents have in finding an appropriate balance in talking with children about separation and contact arrangements. Some children are too involved in discussions about contact. In other situations, typically the consensual subtypes, children felt their perspective had not been included.

3.1.7 Next Steps

Our knowledge about and management of contact difficulties would be enhanced by methodologically rigorous research[6] that provided evidence to help answer questions such as:

  • To what extent does the child's pre-divorce relationship with her parents predict the post-divorce child-parent relationship?
  • What is the environment and manner in which alienation is likely to occur?
  • Are there particular patterns of parent behaviours and child responses? If so, how can they be used to form the basis for more reliable diagnosis and treatment?
  • Are there reliable and valid psychometric measures that can assist us in understanding complex post-divorce relationships?
  • What new measures would be helpful in this regard?

While there are several suggestions in the literature about remedies for contact difficulties, there is a lack of outcome research with respect to legal and mental health intervention. Future research in this area needs to incorporate:

  • Multiple data sources;
  • Measurable variables;
  • Quasi-experimental designs; and,
  • Matched samples with control groups.
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