When parents separate, the way that a child experiences the breakdown will vary from individual to individual. Their feelings may manifest in a myriad of ways including anger, withdrawal, truancy and emotional outbursts. Research is clear that a child’s reactions and feelings are influenced by the adult behaviour to which they are exposed.
Sadly, some separating parents are unable to contain their hostility towards the other parent for whatever reason and this can impair their ability to co-parent responsibly. Harmful conflict can arise when parents are unable to put the needs of their child first. At the most extreme and intense end of the parenting spectrum, these parents may, as a consequence of their negative feelings, abuse their parental responsibility. They may misuse their parental position in a way that can cause grave emotional harm to their child, including alienating the other parent from the child’s life.
The most extreme of cases, for example where one parent falsely accuses the other parent of sexual abuse to try to prevent them from having any relationship with the child, can amount to a child protection issue which can take many months, if not years, to resolve through the courts.
Parental alienation, a form of psychological abuse against both the child and the rejected parent, is a concept which is becoming more recognised and understood in the UK. There is no single definition but it is now recognised by Cafcass (court appointed social workers) as arising ‘when a child’s hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent’. Typically it results in a parent being rejected by their child for no justifiable reason, having previously had a loving relationship. It is an extremely harmful behaviour that can have a life-long impact on a family.
There is now specific guidance available to Cafcass officers who are responsible for reporting to the court on suspected parental alienation cases within family proceedings, called the Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF). Further information is here.
The parent negatively influencing a child can sometimes know that they are deliberately seeking to alienate a child. An alienating parent with insight into the effect of their behaviour can act in certain ways to oust the other parent, often in an obsessive way. Other cases are more complex and, whilst the alienating parent may feel genuinely concerned for their child when in the care of the other parent, their concerns can be unfounded and experienced for reasons such as an undiagnosed personality disorder which affects their judgment. Anecdotally, it is believed that restoring a direct relationship, often with the help of specialist support, as soon as possible can be one of the best ways to ensure a child can rebuild and maintain their relationships with both parents. As a last resort, the court is also able to ‘switch residence’ from one parent to another.
Notwithstanding the above, it is important to distinguish between parental alienation and other reasons why a child may say that they do not wish to spend time with a parent. These can include:
- post-separation rejection – a common and often temporary reaction to the changing family situation;
- justified rejection – for example where the child has been harmed by a parent or is frightened of them because of domestic abuse or other harmful parenting, such as neglect or substance misuse;
- attachment – age and gender specific reactions to resist time with the other parent including separation anxiety;
- affinity/alignment – where a child prefers spending time with one parent over the other. This can develop before/during/after separation;
- harmful conflict – where the parents actively disagree with each other and are unable to put the needs of the child first. This varies in intensity/impact.
The CIAF examines the underlying cause(s) for any rejection and identifies any risk to a child, including emotional harm, as a first step. The reasons for parental rejection by a child are often complex and require specialist help to identify and investigate before they can start to be resolved. Laura Hughes, senior associate in Penningtons Manches’ family team, commented: “The new Cafcass guidance is a positive step to equip those responsible for making decisions about a child’s welfare with the right tools to unearth the reality of family dynamics. It is hoped this will enable a more robust investigation and the means to safeguard a child’s emotional wellbeing from the outset.”
As Resolution members, Penningtons Manches’ family law specialists focus on enlisting the right mix of legal and other expert help for children and parents as they begin to move forward following parental relationship breakdown. If an extreme parenting dynamic develops, such as rejection through parental alienation, a swift ‘diagnosis’ and instruction of appropriate expert input will be vital to ensure that the court is aware of the extent of the issues impacting the family.