Managing Contact Difficulties: A Child-Centred Approach



Drawing from the literature and key informants, we identified critical issues that influence the development of contact difficulties in the post-divorce family. These are described in the following section. First, we provide the historical context for contact difficulties in the literature. Second, we discuss how contact with parents benefits or harms children and the child's perspective about contact difficulties. Building on this foundation, we examine factors that contribute to contact difficulties, the prevalence of such difficulties, the relevance of the concept of parental alienation syndrome (PAS), and whether there is evidence to support the concept of alienation. A review of the major formulations of contact difficulties follows.

2.1 Contact Difficulties in the Literature

The first reference to child-parent contact difficulties in the literature appears to be attributed to Reich who wrote in 1949 about parents seeking revenge on their partner by robbing them of pleasure in their children (Warshak, 2000a). In 1980, Wallerstein and Kelly referred to contact difficulties when they described the emotional pain that fathers experienced at transfer time. They speculated that this factor contributed to fathers disappearing from children's lives. In 1985, Gardner introduced the term parental alienation syndrome when he described contact difficulties as situations "... in which the parental programming is combined with the child's own scenarios of denigration of the allegedly hated parent" (1992: 62). Since Gardner's 1985 reference to parental alienation syndrome, a growing literature concerning the terminology, and its usefulness for understanding contact difficulties, has emerged in the divorce literature and the media[4]. The terms parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome are often used interchangeably.

Concurrent with Gardner's writing about alienation, Johnston and other researchers have focussed on how ongoing parental conflict influences child adjustment in the post-divorce family (Baris et al., 2001; Gold, 1992; Johnston, in press; Johnston, 1993; Johnston and Campbell, 1988 Johnston and Roseby, 1997). Drawing from Ahrons' (1981) work on relationships between parents, we have come to understand that there are varying degrees of conflict between parents post-divorce. The challenges that family change creates influence the quality of this relationship. Parenting plan decisions, and in particular, the child's residential schedule, can become a source of conflict for parents (Johnston and Campbell, 1988) and contribute to the formation of child-parent alienation. Clinical experience has taught us that there is also a continuum of child-parent relationships, ranging from close to non-existent.

2.2 Child-Parent Contact

2.2.1 Does Contact Benefit Children?

Given the diversity of family situations, no definitive conclusions can be drawn from the literature concerning the benefits of contact. Children repeatedly say that ongoing parental conflict has a negative impact on their relationship with one or both parents (Families in Transition, 1998; Freeman and Freeman, 2001; Lyon et al., 1998; Pruett and Pruett, 1999; Smart and Neal, 2000; Smith and Gollop, 2001; Sturge and Glaser, 2000). Smart and Neal (2000) explored children's ideas about parental divorce. The children in their highly revealing study (which, in our opinion, merits further research) emphasized that the quality of the child-parent relationship and type of parenting style were more important than the actual contact arrangements. Children, they concluded, want parents who will care for them, talk to them, protect them from conflict and are flexible regarding arrangements.

Wallerstein (1985: 43) comments that "the emotional importance to children of their relationships with both parents does not become any less following divorce". However, as Hewitt (1996) notes, in some divorcing families the child's contact with parents seems to become the paramount issue. The resolution of contact issues often overrides the principle of best interests of the child. Hawthorne et al. (2002) reviewed studies of children's perspectives about family change. They report that one important theme in the data collected from children is their distress over the loss of day-to-day contact with a parent who leaves. In their study, children who retained good relations with both parents reported that they coped well, in contrast to children who did not retain good relationships with both parents. Hawthorne et al. suggest that the nature of the child-parent relationship is a critical predictor for longer-term well-being. For children, contact can provide continuity for loving relationships, a means of sharing knowledge and information, appropriate role models, stability, an enriched experience of family life, protection and enhancement of self-esteem, opportunities for repairing problematic relationships and for reality testing (Hewitt, 1996; Sturge and Glaser, 2000).

On the other hand, ongoing contact may not always be in the child's best interest. Examples of such situations include unreliable non-residential parents, the child's continued exposure to ongoing parental conflict and hostility, child abuse and the perpetuation of power struggles between the parents. Women's advocates have also suggested that ongoing contact between children and non-residential parents may pose safety concerns for victims of woman abuse and for child witnesses (Landau, 1995).

2.2.2 What Influences Child-Parent Contact?

Child-related variables that influence contact are age at time of separation, current developmental stage, and the degree to which the child perceives contact as interfering with his/her activities and routines (Smart, 2002). Parent-related variables include nature and extent of the parents' pre-separation relationship, their ability to resolve issues of loss and grief, substance abuse, degree of enmeshment with child, mental health problems, and father's social class, income, and employment status (Simpson et al., 1995). Situational variables include mutuality of decision to separate, nature and history (legal status or formality) of the union prior to separation, length of separation, conflict resolution ability, geography, relocation, presence of new partners, litigation and influence of extended family and friends.

Within this constellation of possible influences, unresolved conflict between parents is frequently noted as a critical influencing factor, particularly when the conflict focusses on views about caring for the child. Hawthorne et al. (2002) suggest that when this is the case, the potential for the erosion of the child-parent relationship increases. Smith and Gollop (2001: 23) note that "…conflict before, during and after separation is likely to exacerbate problems…and that quality rather than quantity of contact is the most important factor" (refer also to Baris et al., 2001; Hawthorne et al, 2002; Johnston and Campbell, 1988; Johnston and Roseby, 1997; Pryor and Rodgers, 2001). Nevertheless, as Hewitt (1996: 370) states, "In both clinical and legal arenas, we are faced with people who seem more obsessed about the quantum and the mechanics of contact, rather than its quality".

King and Heard (1999: 393) investigated the relationship between child well-being and the mother's satisfaction with contact, parental conflict about contact and quality of contact. They note that a child's contact with a non-residential parent is "… interrelated to levels of satisfaction and conflict but not in a simple or linear way". They report that even when there was conflict between parents, mothers' satisfaction with contact may still be high. However, there is "… a subset of mothers who are satisfied when fathers are pretty much out of the picture. Indeed, a variety of family types exist, and they differ considerably in demographics and family processes" (King and Heard, 1999: 394). In their sample, the children who represented the most worrisome picture were the 10 percent whose mothers were dissatisfied with the contacts.

Some conflict between parents is to be expected, regardless of whether they live together or apart. Children can benefit from exposure to successful conflict resolution and observing parents who resolve differences.

2.3 What is the Child's Perspective About Contact?

In our clinical practices, we observe that children feel caught in the unfolding drama between their parents. Loyalty conflicts emerge. Wallerstein and Kelly (1985: 77) comment that the children in their studies "…were particularly vulnerable to being swept up into the anger of one parent against the other. They were faithful and valuable battle allies in efforts to hurt the other parent. Not infrequently, they turned on the parent they had loved and been very close to prior to the marital separation". Smith and Gollop's (2001: 29) research demonstrated that "… children are indeed competent social actors who reflect and devise their own ideas and strategies for coping with family life after their parents separate … their views are worth listening to".

From the child's perspective, contact becomes the "…transfer of a relationship into a timetabled obligation" (Nicholson, 2002a: 4). Ongoing conflict between parents is problematic for children and they are able to identify the association between conflict and relationship (Freeman and Freeman, 2001). Parent influence explains only some child reactions. Racusin et al. (1994: 800) conclude that children who refuse to spend time with a non-residential parent experience "… a broader range of problems than those related directly to not visiting their non-custodial parents". There may be justification for the child's reluctance (i.e. fear or dislike of a parent, history of abuse). The child's response may be developmentally influenced. It may represent an important coping strategy for a child trying to make sense of the family changes, ensure a parent's continuing love or pursue a reconciliation fantasy by manipulating circumstances to try and reunite his or her parents. Children who experience difficult contacts can become confused and uncertain as to which parent's story to believe (Johnston, 1993; Lewis and Sammons, 1999; McDonough and Bartha, 1999; Warshak, 2002).

...I don't want to go see Dad every other weekend. It's not that I don't like him; we just don't like the same things...When I got older, I realized they could make me go, but they couldn't make me be cooperative (child quoted by Lewis and Sammons, 1999: 236).

2.4 Contact Difficulties and Alienation

Developing successful relationships that benefit children after divorce is a challenge for most families. Kelly (2000) indicates that mothers' and fathers' reports about contact frequently differ, making it more difficult to understand accurately the nature of difficulties encountered. Furthermore, what Wallerstein (1985) terms the visiting relationship has no counterpart in families where parents live together. She suggests that there is insufficient recognition of the difficulties inherent in building successful relationships and supports for children and parents post-divorce.

Nicholson (2002a) argues that the stakeholders' perspective influences the definition of a contact difficulty. For example, one parent may interpret contact difficulties as interference in their freedom to parent. The other parent may feel deprived of a consistent capacity to enjoy their child and litigates to maintain the relationship by way of improving contact. Quoting Rhoades, Nicholson (2002a: 21) states: "many enforcement disputes involve relationship rather than contact issues".

Contact difficulties in post-divorce child-parent relationships include a broad range of child responses and parent behaviours (refer to 2.4.1 and 2.4.5). It is unlikely that the cause can be attributed to any one variable.

During the 1990s a significant literature developed in the area of contact difficulties, primarily focussing on one aspect—that of alienation as defined by Gardner (1992). Media reports have tended to exploit the more dramatic and serious child-parent contact difficulties. Readers are often left with the impression that contact difficulties, and alienation in particular, is present in most divorcing families.

2.4.1 How Do Children React?

When contact difficulties occur, children's reactions vary, ranging from aggression to withdrawal and depression. Children may appear insecure, reluctant to express affection and experience difficulty with academic work or peer relationships. Older children may be more rebellious; sometimes they may become involved in substance abuse (Stahl, 2000). Some children experience emotional pain, appear lonely, lack a connection to one parent and have a distorted view of reality (Gould, 1998).

Racusin et al. (1994: 799) reported that children who refused to spend time with a non-residential parent tended to be the oldest child or the oldest child still living at home. This group of children was also more likely to "… have at least one parent with evidence of significant functional impairment or psychopathology". In their sample, girls were more likely than boys to be what they termed "refusers". Smart and Neal's data (2000: 167) indicates that when children were expected to spend time with a parent who demonstrated little concern for them, they found ways to reduce contact time.

The child's response is not always an accurate reflection of thoughts and feelings about parents. For example, some participants in the Youth Consultation on the Divorce Act reported telling a parent, social worker, or legal counsel what they thought that person wanted to hear (Freeman and Freeman, 2001). Wallerstein and Kelly (1985) point out that loyalty conflicts are particularly characteristic of school age children.

Some children seem able to resist alienation from parents regardless of how intense the campaign of denigration (Warshak, 2002). However, a child's refusal to spend time with a non-residential parent post-divorce can also represent "… an extreme on the continuum of children's attempts to cope with the aftermath of family disruption" (Racusin et al., 1994: 793). Children may openly express hatred and dislike for one parent. Others may refuse to speak with or spend time with one parent. Their hatred of the rejected parent can be relentless. According to Thayer and Zimmerman (2001), children demonstrate little or no evidence of guilt or upset about these behaviours. Their explanations seem repetitious and may appear rehearsed. Their beliefs seem to become enmeshed with that of the parent with whom they live. They describe events in a restricted and absolute manner. They are often well-informed about "parent business" and will repeat this information. Ney and Blank (in preparation: 3) point out the dilemma for the child when they write that "the only person expected to straddle the conflict, to remain neutral and to tolerate the tensions, but the one with the least capacity to do so, is the child".

Williams (1990) concluded that the worst situations involve a parent abandoning a child. In such circumstances, the child may become depressed and even suicidal. Self-esteem is affected and mistrust may develop. This can lead to difficulties in forming adult relationships because the child has limited opportunities to experience healthy models for relationships, a theme noted by Wallerstein et al. (2000).

2.4.2 What is Parental Alienation?

Gardner introduced the terms parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome in 1985 to describe a pattern of programming and brainwashing. In 1992 he argued that when PAS was present, the alienating parent, usually a residential mother, engaged in an active but unjustified campaign of denigration against the other parent. He labelled the latter parent, usually a non-residential father, the "target parent". His definition is based predominately on the behaviours or characteristics of the alienating parent. He emphasizes that "… the term is applicable only when the parent has not exhibited anything close to the degree of alienating behavior that might warrant the campaign of denigration exhibited by the child" (Gardner, 1992: xviii). This pattern of behaviour contributes to contact difficulties.

Gardner also points out that PAS is often confused with actual abuse and that they are different presentations. However, according to Gardner, both presentations involve one person inducing a psychiatric disturbance in a more suggestible person. In 1992 he stated that PAS is an excellent example of folie à deux (refer to the Glossary).

2.4.3 How Prevalent is Alienation?

Ongoing debate about children's relationships in the post-divorce family in both the professional and popular literature frequently focusses on the subpopulation of children who experience contact difficulties. Conflict is present in many divorces involving children. The degree of conflict varies, although, the more extreme end of the conflict continuum represents a smaller subpopulation of divorces. Estimates of the size of this group of families range from 10 percent (King and Heard, 1999; Rybicki, 2001) to 20 percent (Ahrons, 1994; Hetherington, 1989; Johnston and Campbell, 1988; Maccoby and Mnookin, 1992). It should be noted however, that conflict is not necessarily predictive of contact difficulties.

At this time we only have estimates in the divorcing population of the prevalence of alienating behaviours by which one parent tries to manipulate the child to oppose the other parent. A majority of key informants suggested there has been an increase in the number of cases in which alienating behaviours are a factor. The subgroup that engages in alienating behaviours was estimated to be not more than two percent of the high-conflict subgroup, representing a relatively small proportion of divorcing families. In many divorcing families there may be innocuous behaviours on the part of one or both parents that, depending on the circumstances, lead to an undermining and obstruction of the child-parent relationship.

Most key informants thought that an increasing number of cases were coming to the attention of mental health professionals and the legal system. It was unclear whether the apparent increase reflected a higher incidence of the problem, or more attention being given to the issue and better diagnostic ability on the part of professionals. Some informants speculated that the availability of information through the Internet and various lobby groups has resulted in increased sophistication with respect to understanding the legal system. Consequently, more parents might be requesting help in difficult contact situations. Informants thought that the rising prevalence of alienation might also reflect the increased emphasis in most jurisdictions on ordering and enforcing child support obligations and recovering arrears.

Key informants suggested that the media has played a critical role in the debate about terminology such as parental alienation. The print media often describes dramatic situations and polarized points of view. One is often left with the impression that this occurs in the majority of divorcing families. Several key informants suggested that the estranged parent often does not understand the complexity of the issues, is frustrated with the situation and the system, and simply "wants the child produced".

2.4.4 What is the Relationship Between Contact Difficulties and Alienation?

Difficult relationships, as Garrity and Baris (1994) note, may be established long before the separation. Clinicians and researchers often label contact difficulties as parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome. The media's use of the term parental alienation has resulted in parents defining a wide range of contact difficulties as parental alienation. Appendix B outlines the definitions of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome that we found in the literature. This summary illustrates that there is variation in definition and that authors have not clearly differentiated parental alienation from parental alienation syndrome. Professionals appear to use this terminology in more extreme situations of alienating behaviours. In our clinical practices, we apply the terms to a spectrum of behaviours.

2.4.5 What Other Variables are Related to Alienation?

The behaviours that comprise a pattern of alienation are subtle and the parent might be unaware of the impact on the child. In extreme cases, the alienating behaviours are more obvious. Several key informants stressed that sometimes a pattern of alienation occurs when a parent reacts to the child's report of a situation or conversation with the other parent. Informants stressed the important role that child temperament can play in these situations. Others emphasized that children hear comments or criticisms about a parent as criticism of themselves. They may feel responsible for the identified parent behaviour. Several informants identified the underlying theme of these cases as trying to prove who is the better parent. There was total agreement among key informants that alienating behaviours are always harmful to children.

Several informants suggested that when alienation occurs, the parenting skills of both parents are compromised. In other situations, parents might have been marginally adequate caretakers when they lived together but, as single parents, their parenting capacity is inadequate.

Researchers suggest that parents engaging in alienating behaviours often exhibit a range of behaviours. The cumulative effect of such behaviours, according to McDonough and Bartha (1999), negatively influences the child's relationship with parents. Alienating behaviours include:

  • Dependency (on former partner, new partner or child);
  • Rigidity, self centeredness, lack of responsibility, high level of suspicion and criticism;
  • High degree of anger;
  • Believing that children benefit from being raised without the influence of the other parent;
  • Placing restrictions on a former partner or correcting the other parent's parenting;
  • Failing to protect children from conflict;
  • Encouraging children to assume their point of view or forcing children to choose between parents
  • Causing the child to feel guilty for loving the other parent;
  • Redefining normal differences between parents in terms of "right" or "wrong";
  • Increasing involvement of the child in "parent" business;
  • Encouraging the child to covertly gather information about the other parent;
  • Generalizing from one or two incidents to a more global evaluation;
  • Interfering with the child's residential schedule (i.e. child not available or returned late);
  • Increased likelihood of the child being exposed to conflict and/or violence;
  • Threats of or actual allegations (sexual, physical or emotional abuse) of the child; or
  • Threats of or actual abduction of the child.

(Darnall, 1998; Garrity and Baris, 1994; Gold, 1992; Holman and Irvine, 2002; Lewis and Sammons, 1999; McDonough and Bartha, 1999; Price and Pioske, 1994; Samenow, 2002; Stahl, 2000; Thayer and Zimmerman, 2001; Turkat, 1997; Waldron and Joanis, 1996; Willbourne and Cull, 1997.)

2.4.6 Is Parental Alienation Involved in Abuse Allegations?

Allegations of child abuse (sexual or physical abuse) are not uncommon when contact difficulties occur (Bala et al., 2001). Berns (2001) suggests that for some divorcing parents, allegations and counter-allegations are a tactic in the litigation process. Allegations may be unsubstantiated, unfounded or founded (refer to Glossary). Penfold (1995) concluded that two percent of post-divorce disputes involve allegations of sexual abuse. Research in this area is inconclusive and fraught with methodological problems (Bala, 2002). The incidence of unfounded or false allegations ranges from 8 to 50 percent (Garrity and Baris, 1994; Penfold, 1995).

Key informants viewed malicious or unfounded allegations of physical or sexual abuse as an example of alienating behaviour. There was a high degree of support for thorough investigation of allegations of physical or sexual abuse. False allegations were described as a type of alienating behaviour, particularly those that were vague (i.e. "There might have been physical abuse.") In such situations, informants pointed out that children were subjected to unnecessary psychological and/or physical examinations.

Regardless of veracity, these allegations are always distressing for parents and challenging for professionals (Bala, 2002). The observed characteristics of parents making allegations are: controlling, retaliatory, undermining, obstructive, competitive, over-reactive, denigrating, blaming, exaggerating unfavourable traits, threatening, distorting, attacking the other parent's lifestyle, and rejecting positive experiences. Regardless of the precipitating factor, unfounded allegations create a scenario in which resolution of differences between parents is more difficult.

Sheehan (2000) suggests that balancing the child's right to contact with both parents with the right to be safe from damaging family conflict is hardest when there is an abuse allegation or domestic violence. Allegations frequently distort the process and children can easily become victims (Mason, 1999). Jaffe et al. (1990) and Jaffe and Geffner (1998) outline the special issues that need to be taken into consideration when allegations occur:

  • Child safety;
  • Risk for the child and the parents;
  • Impact of the allegation on the child and the alleged perpetrator;
  • The child's developmental needs;
  • Parenting ability and capacity; and the
  • Need for supervised or suspended contact during the investigation.

They point out that when allegations are made, it is critical that practitioners are well-informed and have training in these specialized issues. Services provided by the court also need to be well-coordinated.

2.4.7 Is Parental Alienation Useful as a Concept?

There is a growing trend in the literature to identify the parent behaviours that influence post-divorce relationships. This tendency was also confirmed by our consultation process. A parent may focus on obstructing the child's relationship with the other parent by interfering with time or failing to make the child available (Holman and Irvine, 2002). Undermining and obstructing behaviours contribute to alienation. This conceptualization is viewed as more useful than labels such as parental alienation syndrome (PAS) because it provides a foundation for constructing interventions designed to improve and support relationships that benefit children.

The use of labels and terminology such as PAS raises the stakes in the confrontation between parents. This terminology was seen by our informants as a "convenient" label and not particularly helpful for promoting a resolution of differences in the child's best interests. On the contrary, it contributes to a process that usually fails to take account of the child's needs and wishes. The debate about this terminology was viewed as accentuating the problem and creating what was termed "toxic conflict." The issue of terminology is discussed in detail in Section 2.6.1 below. Key informants in Australia and the United Kingdom noted that their systems now use language such as residence and contact rather than custody and access, which are viewed as contentious legal terms denoting parental rights.

Whether PAS is even a syndrome is itself controversial. The discourse in the literature has been concerned with whether it can be considered a distinct disorder, if not all children with a similar history and parenting influences develop PAS. Johnston (2001) notes that according to guidelines recommended by recognized professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, PAS cannot be considered a syndrome because it has no common recognized symptoms that have been empirically verified. According to Johnston, the pathogenesis, course, familial pattern and intervention of PAS have not been adequately charted—making it impossible at this time to conclude that it is a syndrome.

Regardless of country and discipline, our key informants had similar views about PAS as a syndrome. Many remarked that parents, lawyers and mental health professionals tend to explain anything and everything that transpires in high-conflict separations by using these labels. We found no support for PAS among our key informants. For some families the process and the "fight" were seen to be more important than the children were. PAS was considered by some to be the "diagnosis du jour" with respect to divorcing families.

Gould (1998) states that whether or not one can definitively establish parental alienation as a syndrome is less useful than describing parents' behaviours and children's responses. Several key informants also made this point. They argued that in clinical practice this terminology proves to be an unhelpful generalization or an over-simplification of the issues facing children and parents.

Most key informants said that they observe alienating behaviours in a certain proportion of cases that come to their attention. They remarked on the impact on children and their resulting estrangement from parents. The notion that the phenomenon exists on a continuum was emphasized. In the more extreme cases, parents are often unable to cooperate on any level. They are more likely to use the child as a weapon in their dispute with the other parent. The ongoing conflict usually influences other areas of functioning and relationships.

Another problem associated with the concept of PAS is the issue of cultural differences. Several key informants conjectured that what are often conveniently labelled as alienating behaviours might have a different meaning in other cultures. With increasing diversity in countries such as Canada, successful interventions require an understanding of the cultural context of parent behaviours.