FACTORS AFFECTING RECONCILIATION BETWEEN
THE CHILD AND TARGET PARENT
Deirdre Conway Rand
This chapter utilizes case vignettes from published sources and the experience of the authors to
explore factors affecting spontaneous reconciliation between the child and target parent in
severe Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Factors which facilitated reconciliation included
maturity, emancipation from the alienating parent and living apart for awhile, pre alienation
bond with the target parent, alienating parent’s anger, trigger events such as a death in the
family, and support of family and friends for parent and child to reunite. The parent-child bond
was found to be quite resilient in some cases, with the initial reconciliation occurring in a matter
of weeks, despite years of alienation. The desire of parent and child for the relationship, and
the effort they were willing to put into rebuilding it, were essential.
This chapter explores factors affecting reconciliation between the child and target parent
in severe parental alienation syndrome (PAS), where the parent-child relationship has been
seriously damaged or destroyed. “Severe” includes several types of scenarios: child obsessed
with denigrating the target parent; child displaying chaotic, destructive and bizarre behavior in
response to intense post-divorce conflict over which parent will stay and which parent will go;
child abducted by the alienating parent; child involved in false allegations of sex abuse; little or
no contact with the target parent for a period of several years or more.
Alienation is the process by which the child’s love for the other parent is extinguished
and replaced by an attitude of reflexive hostility. Reconciliation is the process of reversing
alienation and becoming open to the relationship once more.
Some severely alienated children eventually seek out the target parent on their own and
are able to reconcile, but little is known about how often this occurs. Gardner (2001b)
conducted a follow-up study of 99 PAS children in which spontaneous reconciliation appears to
have occurred in four of 77 cases, or 5 percent. Stuart-Mills-Hoch & Hoch (2003) estimated
that spontaneous reconciliation occurred in 10 percent of severe PAS cases. This chapter
provides numerous case examples with this type of positive outcome, as well as descriptions of
failed reconciliation attempts, and worst-case scenarios.
Case reports from published sources, and from our own work over the last 30 years are
used to explore the factors associated with reconciliation of the child and target parent in severe
PAS. The published cases were drawn from the professional and popular literature, including
books, articles in journals and magazines, and newsletters of non-profit organizations. The
vignettes designated "case known to authors" are based on the accounts of parents, children, and
colleagues we have encountered over the years. They were disguised in accordance with the
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2001).
In the 1970s, we were fortunate enough to interface professionally with Wallerstein,
Kelly, and Johnston, as their research on children of divorce was getting underway in Marin
County, California. This exposure stimulated our interest in high-conflict divorce and
interventions that enable children to have relationships with both parents. We learned about
parental alienation in the 1980s, when Gardner began writing about PAS. In the 1990s,
interventions with severe PAS families became a focal point of our work. The reunification
protocol we follow involves the whole family, including the alienating parent. Children who
have successfully reconciled with the target parent after participating in our brief, intensive
intervention (4 days on average), typically feel that the alienating parent would benefit from the
program as well. It all comes back to the idea that children of divorce, like children in intact
families, need both parents.
MATURATION AND RECONCILIATION
Normal child development calls for an expanding circle of attachments as the child grows
older. This facilitates emancipation from the original biological family at the end of
adolescence, so the child can form a new family of their own, have offspring, and launch another
generation (Kopetski, 1991). Maturation, and the drive for independence and emancipation,
appear to be important factors in facilitating reconciliation in some cases.
In normal intact families, the parents provide support and encouragement for the child to
emancipate in late adolescence. Children in severe PAS scenarios must cope with a complicated,
problematic family situation which can make emancipation difficult. Often, the alienating parent
encourages the child to remain dependent and enmeshed. The target parent has an important
role to play in supporting independence and emancipation. If the target parent is perceived as
the enemy, or physical access to that parent is cut off, the child is robbed of an important
resource for successfully making the transition into young adulthood. In several of the cases
presented here, the target parent played an active role in helping the child emancipate after
graduating from high school or college. Similarly, the target parent was sometimes able to help
the child overcome problems with delinquency and school failure in adolescence.
Children who remain dependent and enmeshed with the alienating parent into adulthood
may be at risk for re enacting PAS with their own children. Gordon (1998) described a case in
which PAS was passed down through three generations of women who alienated their children
from the father. Baker reported on two women who were alienated from their fathers, who
subsequently lost their own children to their mothers (Baker, The long-term effects of parental
alienation..., in press). In Baker's study, fully half the participants who had children of their
own reported being alienated from their children.
Trigger events are life events that provide an impetus for the child to reconcile with the
target parent, causing the child’s attitude towards the target parent to change rather suddenly.
Common trigger events include: serious illness or a death in the family; being rejected by the
alienating parent; milestones such as graduation from high school or college, getting married or
having a child. Remarriage of a parent or child can be a trigger event for reconciliation, or for
alienation, depending on the circumstances (Warshak, 2000). Occasionally, reconciliation is
triggered by an unforeseen, idiosyncratic event, as in the case of the 18-year-old boy who
reconciled with his father after reading in the papers that his father had been exonerated in a
criminal trial (Case #27, Gardner, 2001b).
RECONCILIATION IN ADULTHOOD
It appears that some children emancipate from the alienator, then reconcile with the target
parent within a year or two. Once children are in their 20s, reconciliation may be more
difficult. The lives of parent and child have diverged even further, and alienation may become
the status quo. Rebuilding the parent-child relationship when the child is an adult requires
commitment and patience. The process is fragile, and vulnerable to breaking down. The
desire of parent and child to reconcile must be strong enough to work through the powerful
emotions which stand in the way, such as fear, anger, and guilt.
The story Cecilie Finkelstein's reconciliation with her mother exemplifies the hard work
required for the child and target parent to rebuild their relationship. Cecilie was abducted by her
father at age four (Stasio, 2001). She saw her mother a few times in the years to follow, but
mostly she was on the run with her father. Right before her eighteenth birthday, she got up the
courage to call her mother. “I was terrified when I picked up the phone and said ‘Hello, this is
your daughter calling.’ Neither of us was in any way prepared for how difficult it was going to
be. At one point, we almost gave up" (Finkelstein, Reunification ..., 1999, p. 6).
Sometimes, the child seeks to reunite with the target parent, but the results are
disappointing, as in the case of Kirk's relationship with his father (Wallerstein & Blakeslee,
1989). The mother was reportedly outraged by the divorce, coaching the children to say they
hated their father and did not want to see him. In adolescence, Kirk tried reaching out to his
father. His father responded positively, but Kirk was disappointed in what his father had to
offer. As a young man in his 20s, Kirk's relationship with his father was still attenuated.
Kirk was described as haunted with guilt for having driven his father away and longing for his
father’s forgiveness. He blamed everything that had gone wrong in his life on his mother, but
remained strongly dependent her.
The case vignettes in the section titled "Reconciliation in the Twenties and Beyond"
provide examples of children who reconciled with the target parent in adulthood, anywhere from
age 20 to 47. Some children were able to reconcile with the target parent after being separated
for up to 40 years. According to Baker, one of the participants in her study told her that the
moment he met his father for the first time in 40 years "he could feel the hole in his soul closing"
(p. 22, Baker, Patterns..., in press). These reports suggest that the parent-child bond may be
quite resilient in some cases.
Target parents are sometimes advised to "let go" in the hopes that the child will seek
them out someday. The assumption is that the child and target parent will go on living, and that
there will be enough time. However, this is not always the case. The premature death of a
parent or child may foreclose the option of reconciliation and leave the alienation forever
unresolved. It is painful enough when the death is caused by a fatal accident or illness. In
worst-case scenarios, the death may be linked to the divorce, or to the alienation itself.
We are aware of five cases, four of them published, in which children who had been
alienated from a parent committed suicide, usually in late adolescence (Baker, The long-term...,
2005); Finkelstein, 2001; Smith, 1991; Villemure, 1992). Two of these adolescents wanted
desperately to reunite with the lost parent but got into a row with the alienating parent and killed
themselves. A young woman of 17 wrote to her therapist, “Last night, my mom and I got in a
big fight and she told me Dad had committed suicide. I feel so bad. I’m to blame, because I
lied [about molestation] for my mom" (Smith, 1991, p. 203). The young woman killed herself
the next day. Villemure reported that a young woman was so overcome with remorse for having
rejected her mother that she killed herself at 18. Finkelstein referred to a 17-year-old abducted
boy who was not able to re unite with the left behind parent. Reportedly, the young man
committed suicide, saying that he just could not take it anymore. According to Baker, a woman
in her study risked her life to return to the home of the alienating father in order to rescue her
younger siblings from the father's violent abuse. Reportedly, she was able to escape with all but
one, a young man who subsequently committed suicide.
We are aware of seven cases, several of them published, in which a parent committed
suicide as a result of being alienated from their child, or forced to be physically separated (Cross,
2000; Johnston & Roseby, 1997; Smith, 1991; Warshak, 2003). The despair of these parents
has been poignantly described.
The tragic suicide of a father in one of our studies could have been prevented if the
court had taken the trouble to tell him that its decision to give him once-a-month
visitation with his daughter, when he was asking for joint custody, was not based on
his capacity to be a loving father to his little girl but on the needs of a very vulnerable
toddler to have protection from horrendous ongoing disputes that neither he nor his
wife could control. This socially isolated, emotionally troubled man, whose entire
identity hinged upon his fatherhood, clearly interpreted the court's judgment as a
devastating indictment of his worth as a parent and a human being (Johnston &
Roseby, 1997, pp. 11-12).
In a case known to the authors, the alienated mother first attempted suicide after her ex-
husband told her she would never see her children again. The father gained primary custody.
The children began treating their mother more and more cruelly. The children were their
mother's whole life, and she was devastated. In response to one of their hateful messages, the
mother killed herself. Gardner (2001b) was profoundly moved by the depth of grief that target
parents expressed to him. Their grief was ongoing and could not be resolved because the child
was still alive. Life for these parents was a “living death.”
We know of no completed suicides by an alienating parent who was bereft over the loss
of the child. However, we are aware of several cases in which the alienating parent threatened
to commit suicide if the child sought to reconcile with the target parent. A case report in Cross
(2000) describes an alienating father who threatened suicide in front of the children when the
mother left him. According to the mother, when her ex-husband was unsuccessful in winning
her back, he alienated the children from her.
Occasionally, one hears news reports of an embittered parent who takes homicidal
revenge on their estranged spouse, sometimes killing the children as well.
PROS AND CONS OF "LETTING NATURE TAKE ITS COURSE"
The experts are divided on the issue of taking a "hands off" approach to PAS versus
active interventions such as enforced visitation with the target parent, or placing the child in
target parent custody. The worst-case scenarios demonstrate that dangers exist in "letting nature
take its course."
Contributors such as Clawar and Rivlin (1991), Gardner (2001b), and Rand et al (2005)
tend to favor an active approach, based on their research and experience with interventions in
severe cases. These experts recognize that spontaneous reconciliation occurs in a small number
of severe cases. However, they have observed a greater number of cases in which alienation
persisted well into adulthood, and was never resolved.
Wallerstein argues that there are great advantages in allowing natural maturation to take
its course (Wallerstein et al, 2000). "We see that many children of divorce are stronger for their
struggles...They think of themselves as survivors who have learned to rely on their own judgment
and to take responsibility for themselves and others at a young age" (p. xxx). This may true in
some cases. However, it is important to note that Wallerstein's views have been shaped by her
research with children of divorce from non-litigating, "normal" families who she has followed
over the years (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980; Wallerstein et al 2000).
Baker interviewed adults alienated as children for their perspective (Baker, The long-term
effects..., in press). The majority reported feeling bad about themselves and suffering from
significant episodes of depression in their adult lives. One third had experienced serious
problems with drugs and/or alcohol at some point. One third reported difficulties in trusting
themselves and others. Two thirds had been divorced more than once. Half of the 28
participants who were parents had been alienated from their own children. Some participants
chose not to have children to avoid being rejected by them. According to Baker, all of the
participants were aware that they had been manipulated by the alienating parent to turn against
the other parent. This realization was the beginning of reclaiming the lost parent and the part of
themselves that loved that parent. Not surprisingly, some participants harbored anger and
bitterness over the lost time with the alienated parent.
Wallerstein's study of non-litigating "normal" families led her to assert, "Not one alliance
[with the alienating parent] lasted through adolescence and most crumbled within a year or two"
(Wallerstein et al, 2000, p. 116). It turns out this is not quite true, however. According to
Wallerstein, a young man named Larry, who had aligned with his angry father in adolescence,
did not reconcile with his mother until young adulthood. Larry's story is more consistent with
that of the severe PAS families who have been the focus of those contributors who are in favor of
active intervention. Baker's study was made up of participants from severe scenarios, who were
separated from the target parent from 7 to 47 years before reconciling (Baker, Parental Alienation
is Emotional Abuse..., 2005).
Several of the cases in this chapter support Wallerstein's views. The majority do not.
Maturation was often a factor in the child seeking out the rejected parent, but it was not the only
factor. "Letting nature take its course" led to outcomes which were extremely variable. Even
when the child and target parent were fully reconciled, there was a residual sadness over the loss
of the missing years. As one young woman described it:
My father and I have lost so much time. Ordinarily routine moments that will never
occur again. Today when I see my father we follow a pattern of behavior dictated
by those lost moments. We feel awkward with one another, groveling for words and
clumsy hugs. We then try to get close again (Conigliari, 1999, p.2).
According to some contributors, an appropriate remedy for severe PAS may be to
recommend that the target parent "let go" and end their efforts to maintain a relationship with
their child (Lee & Olesen, 2001; Sullivan & Kelly, 2001). Sullivan and Kelly suggest having a
"good bye" session in which the rejected parent tells the child that they are no longer going to
fight to restore the relationship, even though the parent loves the child and hopes they can be
together again some day. To evaluate the efficacy of this approach, it is helpful to consider the
consequences in the cases presented here in which target parents made their own decision to "let
Sullivan and Kelly go on to suggest that "It is advantageous for the parent to give the
child the same message in writing as well as in person" (p. 313). The question is, advantageous
to whom? According to Stuart-Mills-Hoch & Hoch (2003),
The concept of the "good bye" letter is a convenient invention of us adults who like
tidy endings, and of those professionals who collapse, exhausted by these severe
cases and want to see a clean ending for judicial reasons. But no matter what we, as
adults, may think we say in a goodbye letter, no matter how many caveats we put into
it, the child sees this as yet more evidence that we have abandoned him or her, just as
they were usually told by the alienator (p. 13).
A young woman who reconciled with her mother in adulthood is quoted as saying,
Mum, if you’d written me such a letter, I’d never have had the courage to pick up the
phone and call you. Your consistent message was always that you loved me…No
matter what you’d have said in such a letter, I’d have seen it as you turning your back
on me forever (p. 13).
The alienated parents interviewed by Vassiliou and Cartwright (2001) felt it was
important to send the child cards, letters and small gifts from time to time, even if the items were
returned and the child complained bitterly. In our work, we have learned that adult children who
reconciled often treasured these gestures, albeit secretly. Many of the participants in Baker's
study described holding onto good feelings about the target parent deep inside them (Baker,
Patterns of parental alienation, in press).
The participants in Baker's study who had been alienated from their children sent cards
and letters on a regular basis, and found ways of memorializing their love for their children, such
as creating a photo album depicting the fun times, or creating a website for the child, in case the
son might wish to contact his father at some point (Baker, The long-term effects of parental
alienation..., in press). Most of these rejected parents were fathers. They knew what it was
like to lose a father and were determined to do whatever they could to ease the pain in their
children's lives. In our experience, keeping photos, creating websites, and even writing poems
for the child, have turned out to be very meaningful during the reconciliation process, providing
the child with concrete evidence that the rejected parent never stopped loving them.
The professional literature offers surprisingly little discussion of parent-child
reconciliation. Traditionally, clinicians and divorce researchers have equated “reconciliation”
with children’s fantasies about their parents getting back together (Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980;
Gardner, 1989; Johnston & Roseby, 1997). More information can be gleaned from the popular
literature, where reconciliation accounts can be found in books, magazines, and newsletters, as
well as accounts on the Web.
Gardner (2001a) sought to focus attention on reconciliation between the child and target
parent by devoting a chapter to this in his book on therapeutic interventions for PAS children.
Gardner observed that some children were successfully alienated in a surprisingly short period,
and that reconciliation sometimes occurred in a brief time as well. He cited the case of young
Elian Gonzales, whose affection for his father returned within hours of the two being reunited.
It was Gardner’s experience that adolescents who reconciled with the target parent typically
resumed a normal level of involvement, without acknowledging the hostility and allegations that
may have been expressed previously.
Baker is a developmental psychologist and professional researcher. She conducted
interviews with 40 adults alienated as children in order to explore the processes by which the
children came to realize that the alienating parent with whom they were aligned had been
manipulating them against the other parent (Baker, Rethinking the past..., 2005). Potential
subjects were screened to determine whether alienation was due at least in part to the behaviors
and attitudes of the aligned parent. People who reported being abandoned by a parent, and who
had no reason to believe that one parent had caused the other to leave, were not included. At
the time of the interviews, all of Baker's subjects had come to the realization that one parent had
been manipulating the child to reject the other parent, and using the child to gratify the alienator's
own needs for revenge, control, or emotional satisfaction. The adults alienated as children that
Baker interviewed clearly recognized the power of the alienating parent's influence, contrary to
Johnston's thesis that "both parents are to blame" (Johnston, 2003).
In analyzing the interview transcripts for each participant, Baker identified 11 different
pathways by which adults alienated as children had come to the painful realization that the
alienating parent had been exploiting them: 1) maturation; 2) alienating parent turned against
participant; 3) participant experienced alienation from their own children; 4) target parent
returned; 5) attaining a milestone; 6) therapy; 7) intervention of extended family; 8) intervention
of significant other; 9) seeing the alienating parent treat others badly; 10) child caught the
alienator in a significant lie; 11) parenthood.
The experts agree on the critical need for research on what happens to the PAS child’s
relationship with both parents in the long term. Gardner (2001b) responded to this need by
conducting a follow-up study of 99 PAS children titled "Should Courts Order PAS Children to
Visit/Reside With the Alienated Parent?" A statistically significant difference was found
between two intervention groups. In one, the target parent was given custody and/or the
alienator’s access was reduced. In the other, the court took a "hands off" approach and “no
change” was ordered. The children in the first group maintained a relationship with the target
parent and their PAS symptoms were reduced. Of the children in the second group, where
“no change” was ordered, 91 percent did not have contact with the target parent at follow-up.
Reading the case vignettes, it appears that there were four cases of spontaneous reconciliation
involving adolescents with moderate to severe PAS (Cases #27, #28, #85, #96).
Rand et al (2005) conducted a follow-up study of 45 PAS children from Kopetski’s
practice as a custody evaluator in Colorado. The study examined the efficacy of various
evaluator recommendations for interrupting parental alienation toward the severe end of the
spectrum. The children were divided into three outcome groups: interrupted alienation,
completed alienation, and mixed outcome. The child's adjustment and relationship with both
parents at evaluation and follow-up were compared.
Alienation was interrupted for 20 children who had enforced visitation with the target
parent, or were placed in target parent custody. These children maintained relationships with
both parents unless the alienator was too disturbed. Sometimes, interrupting alienation for one
child in the family paved the way for an alienated sibling to reconcile with the target parent when
they were older, illustrating the role of "bridge" relationships in facilitating reconciliation
(Warshak, 2001; Baker, 2005).
Fourteen children were found to be completely alienated at follow-up. In these cases,
the alienating parent had custody going into the evaluation and retained custody afterward, for
one reason or another. Therapy and gradually increased visitation with the target parent were
usually ordered, but the alienating parent readily sabotaged such orders and the child lost one
parent in the divorce.
The mixed outcome group was comprised of 5 families with 11 children between them.
These were cases in which alienation was interrupted for at least one child in the family, and for
one family with an only child, who had an attenuated relationship with the target father at
follow-up. Of the five children for whom alienation was interrupted, two had been placed in the
custody of the target mother when they were younger. Three were older children who were
supposed to have enforced visitation with the target mother, but who visited at will. Of the
remaining children, three had an attenuated relationship with the target parent at follow-up.
Three remained alienated into adulthood, including a man who distanced himself from both
Two books written by alienated mothers were found in the popular literature, Icebound
(Nielsen & Vollers, 2001) and Lost Children (Cross, 2000). According to Nielsen, she made
the decision to leave her children with their father when she left the marriage, rather than put
them through a contentious custody battle. She took a job as the physician at the South Pole
Research Station. The station was snowed in when she discovered she had breast cancer. The
daring rescue mission that saved her life made national headlines. According to Nielsen, her ex-
husband told reporters that she made up the story about breast cancer to get attention. Her
oldest daughter was quoted as saying she that did not care about what happened to her mother.
Lost Children gives the poignant account of an alienated mother whose oldest son was
reportedly living with his father when he died at 22, leaving a will that banned his mother and
her relatives from coming to his funeral. The book contains the stories of eleven other mothers
who were alienated from their children. This is a unique and much-needed contribution, since
much of the literature on target parents has been about fathers.
Voice of the River is the autobiographical account of Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1987),
who led the crusade to save the Everglades by turning them into a national park. Douglas was
alienated from her father as a child. Her father reached out to her through his brother when the
man she married tried to get money from her father by fraud.
Several reconciliation accounts were found in popular magazines. The story of Cecilie
Finkelstein’s reconciliation with her mother appeared in Ladies Home Journal (Stasio, 2001).
Reader’s Digest featured an article about an abducted boy who was recovered in adolescence and
reconciled with his father (Ryan, 2002). Coup de Pouce, a French-Canadian magazine,
published an award-winning article about a mother’s fight to get her children back after their
father abducted them (Villemure, 1992). The four children were severely alienated when they
were recovered. The mother was reportedly given custody of the younger two. She took them
to a battered women’s shelter. At first, the children screamed hysterically if their mother
touched them. Staff and residents at the shelter provided support while the mother worked
with the children and, after several weeks, she was able to take the younger children home. It
appears that the two older children remained alienated into adulthood.
Joe Seldner’s story, "My Fight to Keep my Kids," was published in Parents Magazine
(Seldner, 2000). The children were reportedly nine and six at the time of the divorce. Seldner
describes how his daughter arrived for a visit one day, then called the police to say that he had
molested her. He was thrown in jail. Seldner reported that he was eventually cleared of the
charges and awarded sole custody, but his ex-wife got the venue changed to another state.
Again, he was awarded custody. According to Seldner, the children were 16 and 13 when he
finally got his relationship with them worked out.
Cecilie Finkelstein, who reconciled with her mother in late adolescence, founded a self-
help newsletter, The Link, featuring personal accounts by abducted children and left-behind
parents. The story of Ruth Langel is about Cecilie’s father’s first wife (Finkelstein, Ruth's
Story, 1999). According to the account, the father abducted the children from his first
marriage, but was allowed to keep them. The article suggests that this empowered him to
abduct Cecilie, the child of his second marriage.
The ADVO Newsletter, published by “America’s Looking for Its Missing Children
Program,” featured an article describing a brother and sister who were reunited with their
father after their mother abducted them ("Rostykus siblings re united...," 2001). The father’s
letter of gratitude to ADVO was also printed. “Thank you all so much for helping me to find
my children…and for helping them adjust back to a regular life and reuniting them with their
grandparents and others who loved and missed them so much when absent from our lives" (p. 4).
This story highlights the fact that the child loses not only the target parent, but the extended
family on that side. From the family's perspective, aunts, uncles and cousins miss out, as well as
grandparents, who are unable to be part of their grandchildren's lives.
Maxine Berry’s story was found in the FMS Foundation Newsletter (Berry & Berry,
2001), as was the account of a man who reconciled with his father in his thirties ("One family’s
The story of Aric Austin was posted on the website for the National Center for Missing
and Exploited Children (Search for and recovery..., 2005).
In December 1981, 6-month-old Aric Austin was kidnapped by his noncustodial
father. His heartbroken mother and law enforcement searched for him but with no
success...in 2003, Special Agent Colleen Maher...investigated a man for falsifying
government-secured student loans for his son...She compared dates of birth, weights,
and heights from the birth certificate with those on NCMEC'S online missing-kids
database and found Aric Austin...More than 20 years after Aric's abduction, he and
his mother were reunited.
Aric Austin's father told him his mother was dead. When Aric learned that his mother was
alive, he wanted a relationship with her.
Barbara Kurth's struggle for a relationship with her daughters, recounted in an ABC News
report, resulted in heartbreak (Huang, 1998). According to the report, the girls were abducted
by their father at a young age and told that their mother was dead. When the girls were located
20 years later, they learned that their mother was alive. However, they did not want anything to
do with her.
Maria Conigliari’s account of her estrangement from her father, and her
reconciliation with him in late adolescence, was posted on a list serve for divorced fathers.
According to Conigliari (1999), her parents divorced when she was six. Her father
acquiesced to mother having custody. She recalls being told by her mother what a lousy
father she had. According to Conigliari, he was "constantly served and arrested at work
because he was unable to meet the [support] payments." She missed her father, but was not
allowed to speak of it. Between 16 and 17, Conigliari underwent therapy, prompted by
bouts of depression and an unending feeling of loneliness, as well a problem with drugs.
The therapy helped her to grieve the lost years with her father and have a normal life, in
which her father was included.
ALIENATED CHILDREN WHO CHOSE TO
LIVE WITH THE TARGET PARENT IN ADOLESCENCE
Case Examples From the Literature
Two boys from different families, Rich and Brian, chose to live with the target mother in
early adolescence, when the boys developed problems with delinquency and school failure
(Families 16 & 17, Rand et al, 2005). In both cases, the alienating father had won the custody
battle, with enforced visitation for the mother. The older siblings did not comply and the
mothers gave them permission not to visit. Rich moved out of state with his mother when she
remarried. He was rejected by his father, but enjoyed being part of the new family with his
mother and step-father. At follow-up, he was back on track and expected to graduate from high
school. Brian was working and getting his GED at follow-up. Key factors: prior orders for
enforced visitation with target mother; visits gave child an opportunity to develop a good post-
divorce with mother; mother's psychological functioning improved after the divorce; adolescent
drive for independence.
Dave decided to move in with the target father upon learning that his father had been
exonerated in a criminal trial because of the father's refusal to pay alimony while the children
were alienated from him (Case # 27, Gardner, 2001b). At 18, Dave had a growing awareness of
the mother's programming, but the acquittal in the criminal trial served as the trigger event for
reconciliation. Dave's younger sister reconciled with her father the next day (Case # 28). Key
factors: maturity; boy's realization that mother had been keeping him from father; trigger
event/father's acquittal; father's willingness to take a stand and risk going to jail sent a powerful
message that a relationship with his children was important to him.
Case Examples Known to the Authors
Steve was alienated from his father after his mother won the contentious custody battle.
When he was in mid-adolescence, his mother had a psychotic break and was hospitalized. He
managed to locate his father and went to live with him. Steve had difficulty feeling close to his
father because of the mother’s accusations against him. However, he developed warm
relationships with his father’s extended family. Steve emancipated, went off to college, and
maintained relationships with both parents. Key factors: trigger event/alienator's psychotic
episode; necessity for an adult caretaker; father available and receptive; support of father's
JoAnn's mother sought a divorce when the children were young, because of domestic
violence by the father, who was a relentless alienator. JoAnn was severely alienated by age 9
and went to live with her father. She moved back in with her mother in adolescence, after her
father hit her during an argument. JoAnn emancipated, graduated from college and got
married. Her relationship with her mother remained attenuated. However, she was close to
members of the extended family on both sides. Key factors: child's realization that alienating
father was motivated by revenge; alienator's abusive behavior; mother available and receptive;
support of extended family.
Helen's mother had primary custody following the divorce. The father came to pick up
the children one day and they were gone. The father was able to locate them within a month.
He gained custody of Helen's older brothers. Helen remained living with her mother by
stipulated agreement. At 17, Helen wanted to try living with her father. The father came home
from work one day to find that Helen had moved back in with her mother. Helen married and
had children but remained completely alienated from her father. Key factors: child remained
enmeshed with alienating mother; child ambivalent about relationship with father and disliked
his stricter parenting style; Helen's step towards independence was undermined by secret contact
with the mother while Helen was at her father's.
Tim was young when his parents divorced. The father agreed that the mother should
retain custody. The mother had been inculcating separation anxiety in her son from the time he
was born, a pattern that continued into adolescence. The mother arranged a few visits with the
father over the years. The father did not force visitation. At 16, Tim decided that he needed to
live with his father for a year and get to know him. Tim had never spent an overnight away
from his mother's home, not even at a friend’s house. He was terrified and guilt ridden over
leaving his mother. However, his mother accepted her son's decision. Tim became close to his
father. He emancipated and went on to pursue a distinguished career. He maintained good
relationships with both parents. Key factors: maturity; father's sensitivity in not forcing
visitation; less pressure for alienation from mother; adolescent drive for independence.
CHILDREN WHO EMANCIPATED
AND SOUGHT TO RECONCILE SOON AFTER
Case Examples From the Literature
Larry took the side of his angry, alcoholic father in the divorce and treated his mother
hatefully (Wallerstein et al, 2000). As an adolescent, he became involved in drugs and violent
behavior. He harangued his mother about wanting to live with his father until she gave in.
When Larry called his father to make the arrangements, his father rejected him. Larry
continued blaming his mother for all his problems until he was 19, when he got into a 12 step
recovery program and made amends to her. Key factors: alienating father rejected Larry;
maturation; participation in a 12 step program; mother's willingness to accept Larry's amends for
his abusive treatment of her.
Cecilie Finkelstein was abducted by her father at age four. She emancipated from her
father at 16, when caring adults persuaded her to leave him. Another family took her in while
she finished high school. Cecilie waited until she was 18 to call her mother, in part because she
was worried that her father might go to jail. According to Cecilie, letting her mother into her
life was hard because it meant accepting that what her father had done was terribly wrong.
Mother and daughter's efforts to rebuild their relationship were fraught with difficulty. They
sought therapy individually and together. According to Cecilie, "My mom and I are really close
today. She is one of the most wonderful people I have ever met, and I'm honored to be her
daughter" (Finkelstein, Reunification ..., 1999, p. 7). Key factors: caring adults facilitated early
emancipation from the alienating father; curiosity about mother; child needed mother in her life;
commitment of mother and daughter to rebuilding their relationship; insight and support gained
Irene was the older of two siblings who were severely alienated from their father (Case #
96, Gardner, 2001b). As part of the custody battle, the mother abducted the children. After two
years of alienation, the court ordered that the children should go into therapy. The mother
successfully sabotaged this. Irene reached a point when she could no longer tolerate the
conditions in her mother's home. Reportedly, the mother brought home a series of boyfriends,
with episodes of domestic violence which necessitated police intervention. After living apart
from her mother for a year, Irene began to realize that her mother had been indoctrinating her to
hate her father. When she was 18, she called her father and they began to reconcile. Key
factors: maturity; intolerable living conditions in alienating mother's home; living apart from
alienator for a year; father's receptivity.
Case Examples Known to the Authors
When Ron reached early adolescence, he became increasingly rejecting of the target
father and refused to visit. His father decided to "let go." The mother remarried. Ron did not
get along with his stepfather. When he was 18, he got into an argument with his stepfather and
moved out. A few months later, he reconciled with his father. The father encouraged his son
to enroll in college, and to choose his direction in life. Key factors: maturity; bad relationship
with alienating mother's new husband; close relationship with father growing up; father's
receptivity; son needed his father, who supported his emancipation.
Vincent's mother was so antagonistic to the father having a relationship with the children
that the father "let go" at the time of the divorce. In late adolescence, Vincent sought to
emancipate from his mother by joining a violent, totalistic group. Soon after joining the group,
Vincent contacted his father. The father was open to re establishing a relationship with his son.
Father was remarried and his current wife was supportive. Their two daughters were thrilled to
discover that they had a half-brother. Father and son began reconciling. Vincent left the
totalistic group after six months and moved back in with his mother. His contact with his father
became sporadic, then ceased all together. Key factors: drive for independence in late
adolescence; father and his current family receptive; Vincent remained enmeshed with his
mother and was ambivalent about his father.
RECONCILIATION IN THE TWENTIES AND BEYOND
Case Examples From the Literature
Aric Austin was abducted as an infant by his father (Search for and recovery ..., 2005).
His mother never stopped searching. She maintained regular contact with the caseworker at the
National Center for Missing Children (NCMEC). When the authorities located Aric, NCMEC
coordinated the reunion of Aric and his mother with the arrest of Aric's father for defrauding the
government. NCMEC also provided an intervention specialist to facilitate the mother-son
reunion. Aric's father had told him his mother was dead. Aric had not internalized the
alienation and was thrilled to learn that his mother was alive. Brothers and sisters whom Aric
never knew existed flew in from around the country for the reunion. Though Aric had never
known his mother and siblings, the family felt immediately at home together. Key factors:
trigger event/abducting father arrested; mother never stopped searching; Aric did not believe his
mother was dead and wanted to find her; alienation not internalized; NCMEC's role in
facilitating reunification; support of siblings and other relatives.
Pete aligned himself with his mother in the divorce and she retained custody of him
(Family 10, Rand et al, 2005). The younger siblings rejected the father as well, but the court
placed them in his custody. The father continued to reach out to his oldest son. The young
man was still living with his mother when he graduated from college and decided to reconcile
with his father. The father helped his son to find an apartment and emancipate from his
mother. For the first time since the divorce, Pete told his father that he loved him. Key
factors: milestone/graduating from college; younger siblings had good relationship with father;
father continued to reach out; son needed his father, who was able to help his son emancipate.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1987) was alienated from her father as a child. She was
close to her mentally ill mother, and raised by her mother's family. Marjory's mother died of
cancer while Marjory was in college. Marjory married a prominent newspaper editor. Her
husband wrote to her father and tried to get money from him by fraud. Her father realized that
Marjory's husband was engaged in illegal financial schemes. The father reached out to Marjory
through his brother. Her father helped her get a divorce and she went to live with him in
Florida. Marjory was at her father's bedside when he died at 84. Key factors: trigger
event/husband tried to defraud father; father reached out when his daughter needed his help;
father's brother provided a "bridge;" less pressure for alienation because mother was dead;
alienation not internalized
Maxine grew up in the custody of her mother, who opposed the father having contact
with her (Berry & Berry, 2001). When the father expressed his desire to attend his daughter’s
high school graduation, the mother enrolled Maxine in therapy, ostensibly to deal with the stress
of seeing her father. The therapist pressed Maxine to recover memories of sex abuse by her
father. Maxine broke down under the pressure and had to be psychiatrically hospitalized. She
had her tubes tied, so she would not have children and repeat the cycle of abuse. With the
support of her husband and primary care physician, Maxine eventually realized that her
memories were false and filed a suit for malpractice. The suit brought to light the mother's
manipulation of mental health professionals to convince Maxine that she had been sexually
abused by her father. Eight years after her high school graduation, Maxine wrote, “I am
thankful that I have had the opportunity to meet my father twice (p. 9).” Key factors: Maxine
discovered mother's elaborate deception; support of Maxine's husband and primary care
physician; father's receptivity.
Greg was raised by his father until the age of 15, when he wanted to try living with his mother
(One family’s journey ..., 2001). For the next 18 years, Greg was alienated from his father.
He made several attempts to reach out to his father, but without success. The son wrote to
inform his father of his sister's fatal illness. He did not expect a response and was shocked
when his father called him. They began e-mailing back and forth and talked on the phone
for hours. Reconciliation was achieved in a matter of weeks. Key factors: trigger
event/sister's illness; son made multiple attempts to reconcile; strong bond with father
growing up; commitment of father and son to rebuilding their relationship.
Denise's mother refused to let her father visit after the parents separated when Denise
was five (Gordon, 1998). By the time the court ordered joint custody, Denise had been
programmed by the mother to hate her father and refused to go with him. Her father decided to
"let go." In her mid-thirties, Denise sought therapy for depression, anxiety, and intimacy
problems with men (Gordon, 1998) Denise came to realize how her mother had distorted her
father to her. After five years of analytic treatment, Denise fell in love with a kind and
reasonable man. She contacted her father, reconciled with him, and the two of them rebuilt
their relationship. Key factors: Denise was having psychological problems and needed help;
insight and support gained through therapy; father receptive; father and daughter committed to
rebuilding their relationship.
Case Examples Known to the Authors
Liz's father maintained a secret pact with her that she would come to live him when she
was 14. As a result, Liz had an attenuated relationship with her mother, even though her
mother had primary custody. Liz ran away to her father's at the appointed time and he filed for
a change of custody. After protracted litigation, the court ordered joint custody and increased
Liz's time with her father to 50 percent. Reunification therapy for Liz and her mother was
ordered, but their relationship remained badly attenuated. The father provided Liz with liquor
and encouraged her use of drugs. Liz spent a year in residential treatment for substance abuse.
When Liz was a senior in college, she began seeing a therapist who helped her see that she was
repeating her parents' mistakes and on her way to a derailed and unsatisfying adulthood. Liz
realized she could make better choices and her relationship with her mother improved. Key
factors: Liz continued to have psychological problems in adulthood and needed help; insight
and support gained through therapy; realization that father's constant gratifying of her impulses
was for his benefit, not hers; mother continued to reach out.
Wayne was a good father until he developed bipolar disorder. His wife left him, and the
children wanted nothing to do with their father. Wayne responded well to Lithium. He was
able to return to work full time. Wayne took what he had learned about having a mental illness
and used it to help others, advocating for the mentally ill and founding self-help groups. The
son was attending college when he called his father. The son wanted money towards his
tuition. They met and Wayne gave his son $3,000. After a few brief contacts, his son
disappeared. Wayne's children declined to attend the memorial service for their father when he
died many years later. Key factors: alienation justified by target father's bipolar disorder;
children not motivated to have a relationship with their father; son contacted father because he
wanted money and felt entitled.
When Bea's parents divorced, Bea and her brother were articulate teens obsessed with
hatred of their mother. Their father broke the law and violated court orders but the children
were deemed too old and too alienated to be placed with their mother. Bea continued to live
with her father into adulthood. One day they had an argument and he told her to get out. Bea
went to live with a friend’s family. After living apart from her father for a year, Bea called her
mother to reconcile. “It was as if the ‘I love my mother’ switch suddenly turned on,” Bea
recalls. “I felt an amazing sense of relief.” Bea did not resume contact with her father until she
felt strong enough to deal with his anger. Key factors: maturity; father's anger; strong bond
with mother growing up; mother continued to reach out; support of close friends.
Frank had a close relationship with his father until adolescence, when he aligned himself
with his mother, not realizing that she was mentally ill. Frank was in his 20s when he reached
out and reconciled with his father. He wrote an autobiography for his father in which he
described what it was like trying to separate from his mother:
From the time I graduated from high school, I felt very alone in the world and knew
that I would have to fend for myself. The only family members I had at that time
were my mother and younger siblings, who were of no help to me emotionally,
spiritually, or financially. Nor were they self-sufficient. I realized that if I didn’t
make a change, Mom was going to continue to live off of me for the rest of my life or
hers, whichever expired first. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned of Mom’s
involvement with many of my relationship problems.
Key factors: maturity; realization that alienating mother was ruining his life; Frank's ability to be
self-reliant; son reached out to father and father receptive.
Ed’s children were in their twenties and thirties when they decided it was time to
reconcile with their father. The children liked his new wife, who had reached out to them.
Their mother, too, was about to remarry. According to Ed, the mother excluded his involvement
with the children even when they were married. Following the divorce, he saw the children for
a few hours at Christmas. They could not wait to leave. Ed says it is taking time to rebuild his
relationship with his children. He described the first Thanksgiving they spent together in years
as full of laughter and affection, the way holidays are supposed to be. Key factors: alienating
mother about to remarry; pressure for alienation was less; father remarried and children liked
Sylvia's mother put up so much resistance to her daughter having visitation with the
father that he "let go" when Sylvia was seven. Forty years later, Sylvia sought to reconcile with
her father when she was diagnosed with cancer. Her father was receptive as was his current
wife, who became a second mother to Sylvia. Sylvia was welcomed by her father’s extended
family, whom she never knew existed. She learned from her father and stepmother that she had
a half-sister, whom her mother had put up for adoption. Sylvia's mother refused to give her any
information that would help her find her sister. Sylvia responded well to the cancer treatment.
She and her fiancé proceeded with their plans to marry. The wedding was held in her father's
garden. He was proud that his daughter wanted him to give the bride away. Key factors:
trigger event/child's illness; child needed emotional support; biological mother emotionally
unavailable; alienation not internalized; father and stepmother were receptive; support of Sylvia's
husband and father and stepmother's extended families.
Factors for Children who Reconciled in Adolescence
Factors which facilitated reconciliation in cases where the child chose to live with the
target parent in adolescence included: trigger events; mental illness or physical abuse by
alienating parent; child needed help from the target parent; maturity; child came to realize that
the alienating parent was manipulating them against the other parent; prior orders for enforced
visitation enabled child to develop a good post-divorce relationship with the target mother;
(Rich; Brian); desire for a relationship with the target parent. Helen's fledging effort at
independence failed because she was still enmeshed with her mother and felt ambivalent about
It is not easy for a severely alienated child to become independent of the alienating
parent, especially in adolescence. There needs to be a strong motivation for the adolescent to
cope with the burden of guilt, and to risk the alienator's anger and rejection. In the cases
presented here, the motivation came from a combination of the alienating parent's bad behavior,
and the strength of the adolescent's need or desire for the target parent and what that parent had
Children who Emancipated and Reconciled Soon After
The factors involved when children emancipated from the alienating parent in late
adolescence and reconciled with the target parent soon after included: maturity; curiosity about
the target parent; intolerable living conditions in the alienator's home; rejection by the alienating
parent; living apart from the alienator for awhile; close relationship with the target parent prior to
the divorce; child assumed (correctly) that the parent would be receptive; child needed target
parent's support for emancipation; commitment of alienated parent and child to rebuilding their
relationship; support of family and friends; insight and support gained through therapy or a 12
Emancipating from the alienating parent was a key issue for the children who reconciled
with the target parent in late adolescence or young adulthood. In the case of Cecilie, caring
adults who were concerned about her living situation with her father took the initiative in helping
Cecilie to leave him at 16. For Irene and Ron, adverse conditions in the alienator's home
provided the impetus for them to move out. Ron's father helped his son make the transition into
young adulthood by providing guidance and support for going to college and choosing his
direction in life. Vincent's father could have helped his son emancipate, but Vincent could not
avail himself of this resource because he was still enmeshed with his mother and had not yet
resolved the alienation from his father.
Larry's emancipation issues were different because the alienating father had rejected him
in adolescence. Larry became involved in drugs and violent behavior, including verbal and
physical abuse of his mother. At 19, he joined a 12 step recovery program, which provided the
support Larry needed to turn his life around and make amends to his mother.
Children who Reconciled in Their Twenties and Beyond
A myriad of factors were found to facilitate reconciliation in adulthood, when the child
was in their twenties and beyond. Factors within the child included maturity; curiosity about
the target parent; trigger events such as life threatening illness, child graduated from college;
child had a close relationship with the target parent growing up; child had a sibling who had
reconciled with the alienated parent; successful emancipation from the alienating parent;
alienation not internalized; child worked through painful realizations about the alienating parent's
motivation and the child's complicity in the alienator's agenda; child felt a strong need and/or
desire for a relationship with the alienated parent; child willing to make multiple attempts at
reconciliation; child had psychological problems in adulthood and needed help; therapy provided
the needed insight and support.
Factors involving the alienating parent included: alienator turned on the child; child
rejected by alienating parent; alienating parent emotionally unavailable when the child needed
parental support; child did not get along with stepparent when alienating parent remarried; less
pressure for alienation because alienator was dead or had moved on with their life.
Factors involving the target parent included: parent continued to reach out; parent's
commitment to rebuilding the parent-child relationship; target parent able to provide needed
support for emancipation; target parent came back into the child's life unexpectedly; parent's
willingness to forgive the child for betrayal and abusive treatment; love and support of target
parent's current spouse and extended family.
Potential obstacles to reconciliation in adulthood include: child's ability to withstand the
alienating parent's anger; length of time child and parent were separated; child never really knew
the target parent; child closer to the alienating parent prior to the divorce; child feels guilty for
"betraying" the alienator by re uniting with the target parent; child's feelings of guilt and shame
for having treated the target parent badly; target parent's feelings of anger and betrayal; parent or
child unable or unwilling to do the emotional work which is a prerequisite for rebuilding the
relationship; parent or child has psychological problems which interfere with ability to reconcile;
parent or child has unrealistic expectations of what reconciliation will be like; friends, family or
significant others are hostile towards reconciliation.
It is often assumed that a child’s vehement expressions of hatred towards one parent
mean that the love bond is destroyed. The cases in this chapter suggest that this is not
necessarily the case. The parent-child bond may be quite resilient in some families.
Alienated children who reconcile in adulthood often say that they never stopped loving the lost
parent. As one man wrote to his father, “In my heart, I’ve always known that we would see
each other again, even if it meant waiting to see you on your deathbed.”
In some cases, reconciliation was facilitated by the fact that the child had a close
relationship with the target parent prior to the divorce, but not necessarily. Aric Austin was
abducted by his father as an infant, and never knew his mother until they were reunited when he
was 20. Sylvia reconciled with her father after 40 years of separation. In many of the cases
presented here, the past relationship between the child and target parent was not as important as
the mutual desire of parent and child to have a relationship in the present.
In The Boys and Girl's Book About Divorce, now in its 28th printing, Gardner sought to
help children by speaking to them honestly and directly about some of the fears, anxieties and
sorrows that children of divorce experience, providing his young readers with down-to-earth
advice for coping with specific problems. He devoted an entire chapter to The Love of a Parent
for a Child (Gardner, 1970). Ultimately, it is the love that parents and children naturally feel for
one another which makes reconciliation possible.
The message from these parents and children is, “Keep the door open and never give up
hope. Remember that reconciliation is possible as long as you both are alive.”
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